By Yochanan Gordon
An elderly woman gets onto a crowded bus and stands in front of a seated young girl. Holding her hand to her chest, she says to the girl, “If you knew what I have, you would give me your seat.” The girl gets up and gives her seat to the woman.
It is hot, so the girl takes out a fan and starts fanning herself. The woman looks up and says, “If you knew what I have, you would give me that fan.” The girl gives her the fan, too.
Fifteen minutes later, the woman gets up and says to the bus driver, “Stop; I want to get off here.” The bus driver tells her that he has to drop her at the next corner, not in the middle of the block. With her hand across her chest, she tells the driver, “If you knew what I have, you would let me off the bus right here.” The bus driver pulls over and opens the door to let her out.
As she’s walking off the bus, the driver asks, “Madam, what is it you have?” The old woman looks at him and nonchalantly replies, “Chutzpah.”
We normally associate chutzpah with a negative character trait. Our sages state: “B’ikvisa d’Meshicha chutzpah yasgeh,” which means that temerity will prevail in the era immediately prior to the coming of Mashiach. This, too, is often perceived in a negative context, describing the degenerative state of society prior to the coming of Mashiach. But while all that on some level is true, is this all it is saying or is there more to it? Nothing in this world is either all virtuous or all negative. Everything can be expressed or channeled positively or negatively.
The Chofetz Chaim was once teaching this idea when someone asked him: “Rebbe, where do we find the concept of kefirah in the service of Hashem? The Chofetz Chaim replied that when a poor person walks up to you seeking assistance in providing for his or her family, never say to the person, “The Aibershter vet helfen,” G-d will help; instead, you be G-d in that situation and help the man yourself.
This lesson doesn’t only apply to kefirah but to everything that G-d created in this world, including chutzpah. The parshiyos we are reading now, which detail the showdown between Yaakov and Eisav, are centered on this topic — with Eisav being rooted in tohu and Yaakov in tikkun. The chaotic spiritual light in the soul of Eisav endeared him to his father, Yitzchak. In the analysis of the Baal HaTanya to Parashas Vayishlach, Yaakov sent messengers to Eisav thinking that Eisav had refined himself and was ready for the final tikkun that would herald the Messianic age. It quickly became clear to him that it wasn’t the case. However, despite the negative manifestation of those supercharged lights in Eisav’s soul, it created a greater potential for good that Yitzchak repeatedly tried to hone.
There is a famous chasidic anecdote with Reb Shmuel Munkes, a chassid of the Alter Rebbe, who had a bizarre encounter on his first journey to his Rebbe.
Reb Shmuel arrived in Liadi late at night; however, seeing a light emanating from the house of the Alter Rebbe, he began to knock on his door seeking entry to the house. After a while, he heard the Alter Rebbe’s voice saying, “Leave now or else I will call the goy to get rid of you.”
Hearing that, Reb Shmuel retorted: “My goy is stronger than your goy.” And with that, the Alter Rebbe let him in.
I was thinking about this story in the context of this article, and it appears that the size of the goy described by Reb Shmuel was what gained him entry into the home of the Alter Rebbe, specifically due to the upside it contains if he can succeed in channeling those energies correctly.
An encounter I had with someone over Shabbos led me thinking along these lines. We had occasion to be at the bar mitzvah this Shabbos of local friends, and we met another friend of theirs who traveled in from Clifton, New Jersey. Although our conversation first began during the Kiddush, with our families sitting at the same table, he must have noticed me sitting in front of him during davening because after introducing himself and asking my name, he asked if I am Lubavitch.
When I mentioned that my name is Yochanan Gordon, he responded by saying that he knows the name Yochanan Gordon is significant in Chabad circles, and he wanted to know if there was any relation. I confirmed my relationship to the original Yochanan Gordon, who was the gabbai in 770 from the time he came to the U.S. in the 1930s, during the tenure of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, until his passing in 1969, 18 years into the tenure of the Rebbe. I began thinking about how peculiar it was for an otherwise Litvishe-looking young man to be aware of the Gordon connection to Chabad, which compelled me to ask him about that. He responded that his grandfather, Rabbi Menachem Ebber (if I recall correctly), was a rav in Sheepshead Bay and was acquainted with my great-grandfather and namesake. He then said that his grandfather “had considered becoming Lubavitch but the commitment to growing his beard was the deterrent for him.”
I, only half-jokingly, then said that if only he would have lived in today’s day that would not have been much of an obstacle, as he could have been Lubavitch without growing his beard out.
While I know that the previous statement might arouse the ire of some people, it is nevertheless an observation worth dwelling upon in this context. Why is it that there is more of a representation of people donning chasidic garb without all the features that used to come along with it? In the early years of Chabad in America, beards were not as popular, but that was probably due in part to certain religious restrictions that were in place in the world during that time. Today, people are free to express themselves, and still we find people, myself among them, who are part of the chasidic ideology but do not necessarily adhere to every nuance of that movement.
I believe that in the mind of this Rabbi Ebber, to consider himself a chassid without adhering to every detail of that particular doctrine would have been a tremendous expression of irreverence and chutzpah to the enterprise that was built with great self-sacrifice. And on some level that is absolutely true. However, in this generation immediately prior to the coming of Mashiach, where chutzpah reigns, there will be people declaring their allegiance to chasidus without adhering to one detail or another of that particular sect.
This leads to another great story about the Sefer shel Tzaddikim that the Ba’al HaTanya wrote, in addition to the Sefer shel Beinonim, which was later consumed in a fire while in manuscript form. On the cover of the manuscript, the Rebbe wrote a message proscribing anyone from studying its contents. After the work had been lost, the Alter Rebbe turned to his young child, Dov Ber, asking if he remembered anything that he wrote in the sefer. He replied: “Tatte forbade anyone from even looking into the manuscript.” To which the Alter Rebbe replied: “Where is your mesirus nefesh for chasidus?”
The definition of chasidus is going beyond the letter of the law, lifnim mi’shuras ha’din, which not only means to express self-sacrifice in adhering to his words, but, as is obvious from the Alter Rebbe’s response to his son, even in transgressing his own prohibition for the sake of the spiritual result that would engender.
In this light, I have interpreted the aforementioned ma’amar Chazal “B’ikvesa d’Mashicha chutzpah yasgeh” to mean that our ability to bring Mashiach in our generation will require the positive expression of chutzpah, as in the way it is used in the prayer B’rich Shmei: “U’masgei l’me’evad tavevan u’k’shoit.”
So while this doesn’t preclude the hope that I may someday grow out my beard, following in lockstep with my ancestors going back generations, it does portray the importance of holy chutzpah and its role in our fulfillment of the purpose of G-d’s creation of this world. It occurred to me that the letters that spell the word “chutzpah” also compose the word “cheftzah,” which means “desire” or “object,” which relates to the ultimate desire that G-d has for us to create a concrete dwelling for His glory in this world — may it become a reality today, with just a little more chutzpah.