“Chutzpah” Parashat Vayera 5780

I recently listened to a fascinating podcast on Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History”[1] called “Chutzpah vs. Chutzpah”. In this episode, Gladwell introduces us to two different kinds of chutzpah. The first kind of chutzpah he calls CHUTZpah (with the accent on the first syllable). CHUTZpah means “audacity”, “grit”, or “guts”. CHUTZpah is a good kind of chutzpah. Gladwell brings some examples, one of which pertains to Hogan’s Heroes, an old television comedy about Americans in a German POW camp in World War II. Hogan’s Heroes was a roaring success. The CHUTZpah of Hogan’s Heroes was not only its premise, which was highly problematic given the show aired only twenty years after the war ended, but the fact that its writers and its lead actors were all Jewish[2]. The second type of chutzpah Gladwell calls “chutzPAH” (with the accent on the last syllable). ChutzPAH means “shamelessness”. ChutzPAH is a bad kind of chutzpah. A person with chutzPAH cares only about himself. He is the kind of person who will brazenly cut you off on the highway, which you would react to by shouting “What chutzPAH!” ChutzPAH is the kind of chutzpah defined by the American humourist, Leo Rosten, in which a man murders his parents and then at his trial for murder stands before the judge and pleads for mercy because he is now an orphan. Our Sages despise chutzPAH: The Talmud in Tracate Zevachim [88b] teaches that a person with “azut metzach” – translated by learnhebrew.org.il as “strong impertinence, real chutzpah” – has no share in the World to Come.

Linguistically speaking, Gladwell is not really breaking any new ground here. He is essentially contrasting the way the word “chutzpah” is used and pronounced by Americans and by Israelis. To an American, chutzpah (CHUTZpah) is a laudable trait while to an Israeli, chutzpah (chutzPAH) is a character fault. That said, after listening to the podcast it became clear that there was a another lesson to be learned.

One of the examples of chutzpah brought in Gladwell’s podcast comes from Parashat Vayera. After G-d informs Abraham of His intentions to destroy Sodom and its environs because of their entirely evil behaviour, Abraham engages G-d in some haggling. First he asks G-d if He would be willing to spare Sodom if He finds fifty righteous residents. After G-d agrees, Abraham goes down to forty-five and then to forty, thirty, twenty, and finally to ten righteous people. Each time, G-d approves Abraham’s new request and each time, Abraham asks for more. According to Gladwell, “Abraham is being very Israeli here. Israel is what is called a ‘low power distance culture’ meaning that it is a place where there is very little respect for hierarchy or formality in social interaction”. People in Israel, assert Gladwell, have little time and patience for social strata and they typically go straight to the top[3]. While Gladwell does not adjudicate as to whether this is an example of CHUTZpah or chutzPAH, let’s remember that we are talking about our forefather, Abraham, so we will assume that he was engaging in some laudable CHUTZpah. The question we must answer is what made Abraham think he had a green light to haggle with G-d. If G-d had decided that Sodom must be destroyed, who is Abraham, a finite human being, to take G-d to task? And this is precisely what Abraham is doing, openly telling G-d [Bereishit 18:25] “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall the Judge of all the earth not deal justly?” I beg your pardon?

Abraham’s actions can be better understood when we look at them through a lens ground by the Netziv of Volozhn and Rabbi Gedaliah Nadel[4]. They point to an earlier episode found in Bereishit [16:6] in which our foremother Sarah mistreats her maidservant, Hagar. Sarah, seemingly jealous that Hagar has become pregnant from her husband, Abraham, whereas she could not, treats Hagar so cruelly that Hagar runs away into the desert. How could Sarah be so ruthless? How could she let her jealousy get the best of her? To add to our dilemma, our Sages in the Midrash refer to Sarah as a “wholesome calf (egla temimta)”. Sarah seems to be acting towards Hagar less like a wholesome calf and more like a woman with a chip on her shoulder. And if we’re already on the topic, another person who the Torah calls “wholesome” is our forefather, Jacob [Bereishit 25:27]: “Jacob was a wholesome (tam) man, dwelling in tents.”. Let’s take a quick look at what Jacob accomplishes over his lifetime: He convinces his brother, Esav, to sell him his birthright for a bowl of soup, he cheats Esav out of his father’s blessing, and then he cheats his father-in-law, Lavan, out of most of his wealth. These are definitely signs of a person who is shrewd and cunning. But “wholesome”? Not so much.

The Netziv and Rabbi Nadel extricate us from this conundrum by completely reinterpreting the word “wholesome” (tam or tamim). They explain that a “wholesome” person does what he does only because he believes it is the right thing to do and not because of any external or ancillary considerations. He does not care how people interpret his actions and he is not striving for honour or glory. He is not interested in political correctness or false mannerisms. A “wholesome” person is a straight-shooter[5]. A “wholesome” person is guided only by his moral compass. Sarah believed that Hagar had to be put in her place, not because her own honour was impinged, but because it was the right thing to do[6]. Similarly, Jacob went along with his mother’s plan to take Esav’s blessing not so he could live a life of luxury but because he understood that he needed that particular blessing in order to be able to meet his destiny as the father of the Jewish People[7]. Whether or not the actions of Sarah and Jacob were correct is not relevant to this discussion and does not detract from the wholesomeness of the people who performed these actions.

With this explanation in mind, let us return to Abraham. Abraham haggles with G-d regarding His decision to destroy all of the people of Sodom, the innocent along with the sinners, because that decision goes against Abraham’s core belief: that the universe must operate justly. G-d is completely aware of Abraham’s moral compass and He adores it. We know this because G-d explicitly justifies His decision to let Abraham know about the upcoming destruction of Sodom [Bereishit 18:19]: “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of G-d by doing what is just and right”. G-d chose Abraham because Abraham believed that doing the right thing – doing the just thing – would be his legacy. Abraham cannot sit quietly when he sees what he perceives as an injustice, even if that perceived injustice is being performed by G-d Al-mighty Himself. And this is precisely why G-d loves Abraham. G-d knows that Abraham is going to go to bat for the people of Sodom and He relishes it.

Chutzpah is not a cause, it is an effect. Chutzpah is a direct and inevitable result of being a straight shooter. The type of chutzpah – whether it is CHUTZpah or chutzPAH – is determined by the direction in which we choose to shoot.  Only if our moral compass is aligned with the Torah will the resultant chutzpah cause G-d to look down at us and to smile and say, “Like father, like son”.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza.

[1] Season 4 Episode 9.

[2] According to a new book “Chutzpah: Why Israel Is a Hub of Innovation and Entrepreneurship” by Inbar Arieli, CHUTZpah lies at the source of Israel’s remarkable achievements in entrepreneurship.

[3] Even in Israel, this is not always a good idea. From personal experience, this can sometimes be a very bad career-move.

[4] Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin – the Netziv – lived in Volozhn, Lithuania, during the nineteenth century. He served as the Dean of the famous Volozhn Yeshiva for forty years. Rabbi Nadel lived in the previous century in Bnei Brak. He was a disciple of the Chazon Ish, then the leader of Haredi Jewry. Rabbi Nadel’s exegesis appears in a book called “B’Torato Shel ha’Rav Gedaliah”, collated by Rabbi Yitzchak Shilat.

[5] This is how my wife describes her late father, whose yahrzeit fell last week. May his memory be a blessing.

[6] The Netziv explains that Sarah believed that Hagar’s disrespect was impinging on Abraham’s honour and on G-d’s honour, and so Hagar needed to be brought down a notch.

[7] Not all of the commentators agree with this explanation. For instance, the Ramban criticizes Sarah for her mistreatment of Hagar, asserting that our mistreatment by the Arabs, descendants of Hagar’s son, Yishmael, is a direct result of Sarah’s actions.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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