High Holiday Sermon – Chutzpa


Chutzpa is a Yiddish word originating from the ancient Hebrew language. The first mention of Chutzpa was 2000 years ago in the Mishna, oral law used to clarify Torah law, which was written down.

I believe the word chutzpa is used negatively too many times when speaking about a person or a situation. For example, Delores had chutzpa wearing the same outfit as me to the wedding; or Eddy had chutzpa not calling me to cancel our appointment, he just didn’t show up! Another example, children have more chutzpa today than years ago when it comes to behaviors at school and at home.

The word Chutzpa has several meanings: nerve, audacity, boldness, impudence and irreverence. The Hebrew root word means, “to bare.” I can see that. What we had to bare for more than 5000 years of Jewish existence had to take a lot of chutzpa because, we are still here!

In today’s world I think the word is used positively as well. We all know about bad chutzpa, but good chutzpa is one of the first rules of behavior cited in the Shulchan Aruch, the classic codification of Jewish Law. The words of the Mishna states, “Be fierce as a leopard,” the code tell us this means that when you go about doing all those Jewish things that Jews do, you should not feel the slightest embarrassment before those who ridicule you. You do not have to call them names, you do not have to react at all. Just keep on doing what you have to do as though they do not exist.

To be a good person, you need two opposites: A sense of shame that prevents you from acting with chutzpa to do the wrong thing, and a sense of chutzpa that prevents you from being ashamed to do the right thing.

Our first fore-father, Abraham had a lot of chutzpa. He argued with God over His plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.

Moses had a lot of chutzpa too. Moses argued with God to save us, even when we were undoubtedly wrong. He also had a lot of chutzpa when God wanted to hire him for the job as our leader and he kept on coming up with excuses as to why he should not lead us out of Egypt.

Our second King of Israel, King David, had enormous chutzpa. He could not conceive how anyone could be afraid of the giant warrior, Goliath, who was bullying and embarrassing the Jewish nation.

Let us move forward in history:

The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement had no sense of fear of anyone or anything other than God. Those who knew him said if a lion would jump out at him, he would not flinch.

Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch defined the kind of chutzpa that the leaders of Chabad implemented in their fight against Czarist oppression, and later, Boishevik anti-religious persecution. “Just go over it,” meaning, no matter what they do, not matter how ominous it looks, just keep your locomotive steaming straight ahead as though there’s nothing in your way.

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, several times insisted that we need a leopard’s fierceness and locomotive with “just go over it” power when dealing with the world. For one thing, we need to walk right over the challenges that confront us living our heritage in a secular world, pushing us from all sides to “just be like everyone else.”

How about today? We find that the leadership of the Jewish communities for example, rabbis, cantors, federation executives, are facing a number of challenges. Recent demographic studies reveal that the next generation of Jewish adults is radically different from earlier generations; and they are challenging the Jewish community to rethink its approach and its messages. The studies point out that these Generation Xers were born and raised in a post-racial America where they have experienced very little or no explicit anti-semitism. They move effortessly through a multi-cultural society where they have benefited from and have embraced modern American values like equality for all people. Many of them feel proud to be Jewish, but they also feel very comfortable among their friends of every race and religion. We are finding the messages that worked in previous generations do not work with this younger crowd. Many, many are not motivated to participate in synagogue functions and many other Jewish community functions.

It is probably time for us to use “chutzpa” in a different way. We need to “listen.” Younger Jews are telling us what worked for us is not working for them; therefore, we need to listen as to what will work for them. We need to pause and reflect. Who did that? Moses.

Korah and 250 others rose up in rebellion against the authority of Moses and Aaron. Korach said, “Rav lecha,” You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you elevate yourselves up over Adonai’s community?” (Numbers 16:3)

This took chutzpa! Moses, with his brother Aaron are the guys who lead us out of Egypt! Around 1 to 2 million of us!!

You might think that Moses would respond with anger, but in verse 4, it says that he listened and he fell on his face. Why did Moses fall on his face? It may be because Korah was a priest as well. Even though Moses was the chosen leader, even though Korah had the chutzpah to approach Moses in the manner that he did, there was some truth to what he was saying and Moses listened. To me that is chutzpa as well. Taking a step back for a moment and listening, analyzing the situation instead of possibly behaving according to his first initial reaction which may have been to explode of throw a punch. It takes chutzpa to take a step back.
Let us take a step back this year. Let us follow Moses’ lead. Listen! Use chutzpa to make a positive impact in our families, in Judaism, in Israel, here at the Court, in our communities. And let us say, Amen.

Compiled and written by Cantor Risa Askin.

About cantorrisa

I am a Cantor, Judaic Studies, and music teacher. I enjoy sharing my knowledge, and help people from young to old love being Jewish. I teach and sing in several synagogues and schools in the area. I officiate all life cycle events and teach students, children and adults, privately for their b'nai mitzvah ceremonies. I also enjoy studying Bible with all faiths either individually or in small groups (chevruta). I conduct Shabbat and High Holiday Services at K'hilat Bayt Shira and Senior Communities in the area. In my spare time, I teach key board and guitar. I am married to a wonderful man, have two children and six grandchildren. My hobbies are writing, playing and listening to music, learning, reading, crocheting and knitting.
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