Chutzpah is a word that doesn’t need to be translated. Anyone who has ever had it knows exactly what it is. But it is also a word that doesn’t translate well. Audacity, nerve, gall, gumption, brazenness, and brashness, have all been used. But none of these do chutzpah justice. Some words just don’t translate.
Chutzpah doesn’t translate into the English language, but it certainly translates into action. No matter where you are, you can accomplish much with chutzpah. Of course, like with anything else, there is a time and a place for chutzpah. A student should not speak with chutzpah to his teacher unless he is looking for a failing grade. Neither should an employee try chutzpah with his boss. That too is a recipe for disaster. But in the right time and place, chutzpah can break barriers.
Let’s be clear. What we mean by chutzpah is not to be offensive or acrimonious. What we mean is to be willing to break with the norm. Just because societal etiquette says that we must behave just so, doesn’t mean that we must. If you have good reason to behave differently, have some chutzpah, and do what you need to do. Don’t cower in the face of society’s silent rebuke. Do what needs to be done.
Sometimes we need to break with etiquette. For example, if your loved one is in the hospital with his life was on the line, and he needs to see a specialist who puts him at the back of the line, would you stand back and follow the rules or advocate and make a ruckus?
If your only son was getting married and your plane was delayed, would you meekly accept the clerk’s assessment that there are no other flights, or would you raise Cain until you found a flight? Making a nuisance of ourselves is unpleasant for us and those around us, but if the cause is critical, we assume the inconvenience. What would we rather, the death of our loved one or the disapproval of a nameless clerk?
Let me give you an audacious example of chutzpah as related by former Israeli foreign minister, Abba Eban. During the 1956 Sinai Campaign, John foster Dulles, told Eban, that he was personally thrilled that Nasser and Egypt, were pushed back, but since Israel had violated the international charter by launching the Sinai campaign, the United States had no choice but to condemn Israel. Was the US expected to have one set of expectations for its adversaries and another for its friends?
Eban writes, “To his evident dismay, I replied, ‘O’ yes, Mr. Secretary, I do. isn’t that what friendship’s about?’” The situation called for chutzpah and happily it worked.
When Yosef’s brothers came to Egypt and met Yosef, they thought him an Egyptian strongman. When Yosef made life difficult for them by accusing them of being spies and by detaining their brother Shimon, the brothers went along with it. After all, they needed this Egyptian strongman more than the strongman needed them. When Yosef told them to bring along their brother Binyamin when they returned to procure further provisions, they went along with that too. What choice did they have?
But when Yosef implicated Binyamin in a libel and attempted to have him detained for life, Yehudah drew the line. He approached this Egyptian viceroy, who seemed to have it in for his family, prepared to do battle.
Yehudah was a powerful warrior. Our sages say that when he bellowed his war cry, the palace rattled, and many Egyptians lost their teeth. Yet, to stand up your hosts on whom your future welfare depends, is sheer lunacy. To challenge them to war in their own country is nothing less than chutzpah. Yes, Yehudah gauged that he would win the war, but to declare such war is chutzpah.
But that didn’t stop Yehudah. Binyamin’s entire future was on the line. Should Yehudah place proper etiquette ahead of his brother’s destruction? Should Yehudah seek society’s approval ahead of his brother’s freedom? No way! That is not the Jewish way.
But wait, what actually occurred? War never did break out. And why? Because it turned out that the person Yehudah thought was his enemy was actually his brother. The Egyptian strongman was non other than their long-lost brother Yosef.
The message for us is that sometimes we must have the chutzpah to stand up for Jewish dignity, safety, and freedom. It is true that we are a minority in a non-Jewish country. We don’t demand that our host countries adopt our halachah as their national law. We don’t demand that our Jewish festivals become national holidays. That is not chutzpah. That is plain wrong. We have no right or need to demand that.
But when Jewish lives, freedoms, or even dignity is threatened, we can and should speak up with chutzpah. We should not be intimidated by the silent majority. We should not be afraid to stand out and be heard. If the cause is important, we should have the chutzpah to speak up.
I am not talking about speaking up for issues that are critical to Judaism. There are countries today that outlaw shechitah, Jewish ritual slaughter. Of course, we must speak out against that. I am talking about everyday events that infringe on the freedoms and dignity of the Jew.
If you go to work every day and there is antisemite who rants against Jews or against Israel, don’t cower in fear. Find the chutzpah to speak up. Speak to management. Rally your colleagues. Don’t take it lying down. I am not talking about being aggressive and going to war. I am talking about standing up for Jews and for the right to be Jewish openly everywhere.
Just the other day an American Airlines flight attendant instructed a Jewish man to place his tefillin bag on the floor under his seat. When he refused because it is a sacred religious article, he and his wife were escorted off the plane. Not a single passenger stood up for him. If you were on that plane, I believe you would have had the chutzpah to speak up.
I am sure you have the chutzpah to wear your kippah and tzitzit in public. I am sure you have the chutzpah to place a mezuzah on your front door and declare to your entire neighborhood that you are Jewish. I am sure that you have a large Menorah in front of your synagogue that openly declares your Jewish identity and pride. And just as you have the chutzpah to do that, I am sure you have the chutzpah to speak up when a fellow Jew needs your support.
And what would you accomplish? If we spoke with confidence and with absolute trust in G-d, we would find as Yehudah did that the person who behaved like our enemy, is in fact our brother. Non-Jews are impressed by Jews who are proud of their Judaism. When we speak up and point out an obvious truth, they recognize it and come to our aid. The person who stood in our way, will turn around and support us.
Let’s remember that we don’t live in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. We live in a democracy with laws that protect and defend its citizens. We live among people who are generally respectful and are sometimes oblivious to how their words and behaviors make others feel. If we have the chutzpah to help them see how their words impact us, they will relent and support us.
Let’s not be afraid of the big bad world. The world is not all that big or all that bad. It is created by a much bigger and more powerful G-d, who can turn things around in an instant. With a little bit of chutzpah and a lot of faith, we can speak up and help Him turn it around.