Drash on Parashat Shabbat Ki Tisa
Rabbi Gary Robuck
North Shore Temple Emanuel
Chatswood, New South Wales, Australia
An old Jewish Bubbe climbs into a crowded bus. Standing just in front of a seated young man she clutches her chest and says, “Oy! If you knew what I had, you’d get up and give me your seat.” The man looks at the old woman, and feeling sympathy, gives up his seat. The woman sitting beside the bubbe takes out a fan and starts to fan herself. Grasping her chest, the bubbe turns and says, “If you knew what I have, you would give me that fan.” The woman gives her the fan. Fifteen minutes later the woman 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 and 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 says: “Chutzpah."
This characteristically Jewish "condition" has appeared in the Jewish gene pool for millennium. Jonathan Kirsch, in his book “The Woman Who Laughed at God”, argues that it first shows up with Sarah and Avraham. Sarah laughed at God when hearing how she would give birth to a child in her old age, while Avraham argued with God in defence of the righteous of Sodom and Gomorrah. Chutzpah drove the Maccabees and mystics and kibbutzniks, who Kirsch contends even went so far as to feast on “kosher pigs”. That’s chutzpah!
Moshe Rabbeinu also had chutzpah. How else could he have stood before Pharaoh like a thorn in his eye and demanded that his people be released?
And it is his chutzpah that many of us, I imagine, admire most about Moshe. Time and again, when confronted by provocation of one sort or another, he responds with courage and chutzpah. Even a quick peek at this week’s parashah reveals how this ish anavah (humble man) could also be quite cheeky.
God, thoroughly exasperated by the behaviour of His people in the matter of the Golden Calf, appeals to Moshe saying: "Leave me alone so that I may vent my anger on them, and put an end to them and make a great nation out of you.” Moshe, however, is having none of it. Instead he turns the tables on the Almighty, reminding God that despite their current estrangement, the orgy that is going on below, their infidelity, idolatry and faithlessness, the people remain God’s responsibility and not Moshe’s entirely. Ever the barrister, Moshe reminds God of His past promises to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, from who a great and multitudinous nation was later to emerge.
Finally, Moshe appeals to God saying, "Lamah yomruh Mitzrayim (What will the Egyptians think that You should bring them out into the wilderness to die here)? In so doing, Moshe repeatedly appeals to God’s rachamim (mercy), even going so far as to lay his own life on the line, saying: “Blot me out of Thy book”, in response to God’s offer to destroy the people and to start over again with Moshe.
In this respect, and according to the Zohar, Moshe’s conduct is comparable to that of the other ancient Hebrew prophets who like him were prepared to die rather than to witness the suffering of Israel. And like the ancient “troublers of Israel”, Moshe did not budge until God withdrew His plan to destroy completely the people of Israel as the Torah says: “So the Lord repented of the evil with which He had threatened His people” (Exodus 32:14).
Today, chutzpah is a term that has won admission into common parlance. When Alan Dershowitz titled one of his books "Chutzpah", he did so with the confidence that both Jews and non-Jews alike would get its meaning. So what should chutzpah mean today: audacious, insolent, impertinent or rude? No. Chutzpah should be regarded as a complimentary term and used to define those exceptional few who refuse like most others to go along with that which is unacceptable, wrong or discriminatory, but who dare instead to change the scenery of their lives and circumstances.
Chutzpah is more than just a punch line. It is the ultimate Jewish motivational tool. The chutzpah that allowed Moshe to argue with God at Sinai is the same chutzpah which has motivated our people to shake off anti-Semitic taunts, medieval pogroms, gross and hateful caricatures, even the Holocaust, and to stand once more undaunted and unbending upon the stage of history.
We are, as our Parsha says, an am kasheh oref (a stiff-necked people), a people with chutzpah. Harei zeh m’shubach – so much the better for us!