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In Praise of Chutzpah

Sermon, Shabbat Vayigash 5779

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

I heard a new definition of the word chutzpah this week. You know the classic definition of chutzpah, don’t you? Chutzpah means audacity, nerve, gall, arrogance, and mild manipulation all rolled into one. So the classic definition is the tale of the guy who kills his parents—and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s now an orphan. But I like this new one, too:

A little old lady sells pretzels on a street corner for $1 each.

Every day a guy leaves his office building at lunchtime, and as he passes the pretzel stand, he leaves her a dollar, but never takes a pretzel.

This goes on for more than 3 years. The two of them never speak, just each day he puts down and dollar. One day, as the man passes the old lady's stand and leaves his dollar as usual, the pretzel lady says, “Hey. They're $2 now." Chutzpah.

In fact, Chutzpah is what makes many Jewish jokes work, because we know there is truth to the notion that chutzpah is an important part of Jewish life. Like the old restaurant complaint—the food in this place is awful—and the portions are so small…

Or the old Jewish bubbie who limps onto a crowded bus. Standing right in front of a seated young man she clutches her chest and says, "Oy! If you only knew what I had, you'd get up and give me your seat."

The man looks at the old woman, and reluctantly, gives up his seat. The woman sitting beside the bubbie takes out a fan and starts to fan herself. Grasping her chest, the bubbie turns and says, "If you knew what I have, you would give me that fan." So the woman gives her the fan.

Fifteen minutes later the bubbie gets up and says to the bus driver, "Stop, I want to get off here."

The driver says, "Sorry, lady, but the bus stop is at the next corner. I can't stop in the middle of the block." Again, the old woman clutches her chest and says, "If you knew what I have, you would let me out right here." Worried, the bus driver pulls over and lets her out. As she's climbing down the stairs, he asks, "Ma'am, what is it, exactly, that you have? "

She smiles sweetly at him, and she says, "Chutzpah."

Chutzpah, of course, is an especially Jewish attitude, or at least it has always seemed so to me. In fact, it has probably been an essential Jewish expression, for without chutzpah we would never have survived two thousand years of statelessness and maniacal persecution. Easygoing people who don’t push in where others think they don’t belong don’t survive the Holocaust, or defeat overwhelming enemy armies, or even retain their identity in a season when everything seems designed to cater to another faith and tradition. Not that we have any evidence of that in here tonight.

Chutzpah is what makes it possible for a tiny people, less than 1% of the world’s population, to produce world-beaters in so many, many areas of human accomplishment. Chutzpah is what, in part, motivates a young guy like Mark Zuckerberg to drive Facebook into an entity with 2 billion members—2 billion! More than ¼ of the total world’s population—and what drove Bob Dylan to remake popular music and Albert Einstein to re-imagine the universe and remake the world. It’s what was required for Jews to win numerous Nobel Prizes and to be elected to the Senate in large numbers—in states like Wisconsin and Minnesota, which have very, very few Jews—and to invent Hollywood and the contemporary music industry out of whole cloth. It’s what made it possible for so many of our ancestors to migrate across the Atlantic in steerage with no money to make remarkable new lives in an alien land. Chutzpah was an utterly indispensable ingredient in creating the modern miracle of the State of Israel when no one else in the world believed it was possible, or even desirable, what in part allowed small Jewish armies, from the Maccabees’ time to the Israel Defense Forces, to defeat larger, better armed, and better trained enemies, partly through sheer audacity. Chutzpah is what motivates Jewish hyper-achievers now, and always has.

There is a downside, of course, to chutzpah. It can make Jewish groups of people less than tolerant of error, and occasionally, well, slightly critical of others, and even of ourselves. The ubiquity of chutzpah can make working with Jews, even for rabbis, into a challenging experience, because they are willing to say and do anything if they believe it can lead to the result they think is desirable. Let’s be honest: most Jews do not lack chutzpah.

I’m reminded of Jackie Mason’s routine about the difference between a Jew and a non-Jew entering a restaurant. The non-Jew comes up to the hostess and when he’s told that there is a 40-minute wait for his reservation he says, “OK”, and takes a seat. The Jew asks for the manager, and somehow convinces the staff that they are in the wrong and he needs to be seated immediately. After a long wait, the non-Jew finally gets seated in the back of the restaurant next to the kitchen and accepts it meekly. The Jew says, “You call this a table for a man like me?” and starts moving tables and chairs to make a better space. Then he tells the manager to turn up the air conditioning, or turn it down. It’s not always pleasant to experience, but it certainly works…

The eternal Jewish lesson is that without Chutzpah we would be exactly nowhere. When the game is rigged against you there are two choices: knuckle under, or rise to the challenge and find a way to succeed in spite of the odds. And that is exactly what we have always done. It goes back to Abraham arguing with God on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, insisting that God be certain that there were no righteous men there: as he puts it, memorably, shall the Judge of the whole earth not act with justice?

Pure chutzpah… and Abraham handed it down to his descendants. Jacob consistently demonstrated more chutzpah than any three men usually have in their whole lives.

All of which is especially relevant to this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash. At the start of the portion Joseph, the grand vizier of Egypt, the high poobah in charge of everything, has his brothers in the palm of his hand. Remember, these are the half-brothers who tortured and tormented Joseph, who beat him and sold him into slavery and reported him dead to their mutual father. Now they have come down to Egypt to buy food to stave off starvation back home. They don’t realize that the renamed Egyptian prime minister who teases and tricks and torments them is actually their hated little brother. And so, after last week’s portion, filled with an intricate cat and mouse game in which Joseph has his wild, powerful brothers twisting and turning at his whim, we come to Vayigash and the climax of this great story.

The chutzpah here is embodied in the most powerful, and probably the smartest of the other brothers, Judah. Judah sees that all this tzoris they are experiencing must come from somewhere. This much trouble can’t just be bad luck, or even fate; someone is behind it. Perhaps—no, probably—Judah even has some inkling that the dictatorial Egyptian bureaucrat they are facing, the one masterminding all of their terrible misfortune, is actually their long-lost unlamented brother Joseph.

And then Joseph plays yet another, perhaps final card in this elaborate game of high-stakes poker. Having forced his bad half-brothers to bring the youngest, innocent brother, his only full brother Benjamin, down to Egypt he now insists they leave Benjamin with him and depart Egypt immediately.

Judah knows this will kill their father Jacob and destroy the family. And in this moment of extremis Judah makes an impassioned speech, an excellent speech, a speech that somehow combines plaintive request and apparent humility with pure, unadulterated chutzpah.

First, without being asked, Judah steps forward towards the throne on which Joseph sits. This is a huge breach of protocol, and might have proven to be a fatal one. It is hard to imagine how much chutzpah this took: it’s as though someone had crashed a White House audience with the president, just bodied his way forward to make his point. It’s pure chutzpah. In any case Judah steps right up to the throne and says, “Don’t be mad at me, I’ve got to talk to you personally and privately. You won’t want to miss this…”

And then Judah proceeds to tell the real story of their lives. Well, kind of. He leaves out all the ways in which the brothers betrayed and sold out Joseph. He plays on all the heartstrings, though, emotionally pleading on behalf of their mutual fathers’ distress, the strain of the potential loss of his beloved youngest child. Judah’s speech is a model of schmaltzy manipulation—seemingly a manly declaration of personal responsibility, under closer examination it sounds like the guy who has killed his brother and asks for mercy since he is now an only child. It is really, really chutzpadik—and, of course, it works. There is a reason we are all named Jews after this guy, Judah.

Joseph knows who he is dealing with, of course. And yet, in spite of his supreme self-control, his astonishing ability to think and reason and manage and lead, he cannot help but be overcome by family-tinged emotion. He sends out all the advisors and interpreters, the whole kitchen cabinet and the entire court, and faces his brothers alone, as he did twenty years earlier when they tossed him into a pit and sold him into slavery. And now, in one of the most dramatic moments in the Torah, Joseph cries aloud, admits his identity—“I am Joseph”—and asks plaintively, “Is my father still alive?”

It is a stirring moment of reunion. And without tremendous chutzpah it would not have happened. And without that reunion, we would never have come down to Egypt, been enslaved, experienced the Exodus, reached Mt. Sinai, received the Torah, been given the Promised Land of Israel. Without this chutzpadik speech there would be no Jews today at all.

We owe our very existence to chutzpah.

Of course, there are many aspects of this ingrained Jewish Chutzpah that may seem undesirable—the so-called pushy Jewish stereotype is part of it, as is the tendency most of our people have to be utterly certain that we are always right about, well, everything.

But the truth is that what many people call fate or destiny is often the result of the determination of those who most need it to make something positive happen. Our chutzpah needs to directed toward positive goals like feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, fighting injustice. Even building a new congregation…

In an interesting way, how much chutzpah we display can be the most accurate measure of our own Jewish commitment and energy, the truest measure of how serious we are about our Judaism. So how much chutzpah are you willing to demonstrate for a good cause? Are you willing to be chutzpadik to make the world a better, holier place?

Judah took a chance and created a future for our people. It’s now our responsibility to do the same.

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