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ב"ה

Chutzpah!

Friday, 10 December, 2021 - 6:07 am

A good friend of mine once shared with me a podcast describing the difference between the American version of Chutzpah (CHUTS-pah) and the Israeli version of Chutzpah (Chuts-PAH). What emerged from the discussion was that CHUTS-pah is frowned upon, whereas Chuts-PAH is celebrated.

Well what is Chutzpah and what’s the difference between them?

Chutzpah has recently entered the English lexicon and appears in the dictionary as an English word. The common translation is audacity or nerve. A classic example is the boy who kills his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court on the grounds that he is an orphan.

But, this is simply CHUTS-pah, the American version. This is actually the more historic version, emanating from the times of the Talmud and widely adopted into the Yiddish language.

Modern Hebrew, however, has used its own Chutzpah to turn CHUTS-pah into Chuts-PAH. In the modern Hebrew sense, Chutzpah is an admirable character trait. 

Abba Eban, Israel’s Foreign Minister, once was told by his American counterpart that the Americans were thrilled with Israel’s advances against Egypt, but were forced to condemn the actions.  The US diplomat asked, “Certainly, you don’t believe the US should have one set of standards for its foes and another for its allies?”

Eban, in a great display of Chutzpah, responded, “O’ yes, Mr. Secretary, I do. Isn’t that what friendship is about?” Secretary Dulles was disarmed. And, the Americans stood by Israel.

Israelis pride themselves in using Chutzpah to create the Startup Nation, to stand strong amidst a sea of hostile neighbors and to shine a light in a dark world.

In truth, these are not two distinct types of Chutzpah. There is only one Chutzpah. Chutzpah is the ability to lay aside any considerations and act.

However, depending on the circumstance and activity, that can be either a plus or a minus.

When my child answers back at their teacher, it’s a character deficit. When my child proudly wears a kippah in public, it reflects a hugely positive sense of self-worth and conviction.

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This week’s parsha, Vayigash, opens with Yehuda (Judah) displaying remarkable Chutzpah to the Viceroy of Egypt. It turns out that the Viceroy is none other than his younger brother Yosef (Joseph).

If you read last week’s parsha and this week’s parsha, it seems like a strange place to pause between the Torah portions. It’s really smack in middle of the story. Why pause here?

The commentaries point out that this is indeed a turning point. Yehuda’s bold approach to challenge the Viceroy of Egypt led to Yosef’s subsequent revelation of brotherhood. And, it is a lesson for all of us.

The cards were stacked against Yehuda. He and his brothers were a tiny group caught red-handed in an apparent act of thievery. A verbal takedown of a dictator, no less with guilt written all over you, is not exactly the best recipe for mercy.

Yet, Yehuda acted with courage. He acted with absolute Chutzpah. Because he knew that he was acting to save his younger brother Binyamin (Benjamin). 

And, it was precisely the Chutzpah of Yehuda that demonstrated to Yosef that his brothers truly regretted their deplorable act of selling him into slavery. By rising to the height of Chutzpah in defense of Binyamin, Yehuda and his brothers were reunited with Yosef.

*

When appalling acts of Antisemitism occur – and it’s the epitome of Chutzpah when it targets the Anne Frank Memorial – it’s time for Chutzpah. It’s time to stand tall as Jews and wear a kippah or Jewish-themes jewelry in public. It’s time to demand kosher food when on an airplane. It’s time to use our Jewish names.

It’s time to call it what it is, Antisemitism.

Instead of hiding behind a universal cry of human rights (which has its own time and place) or trying to sneak beneath the radar, it’s time to call it what it is – Antisemitism.

By displaying positive Chutzpah, people will respect us for who we are. And, we will ultimately bring more peace and harmony to this world, eliminating the other type of despicable Chutzpah!

 

Credit to my colleague, Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, for the theme of this Torah thought.

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