September 14, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

An old bubbie limps onto a crowded bus. Standing right in front of a seated young man she clutches her chest and says, "Oy! If you only knew what I had, you'd get up and give me your seat."

The man looks at the old woman, and reluctantly, gives up his seat. The lady sitting beside the bubbie takes out a fan and starts to fan herself. Grasping her chest, the bubbie turns and says, "If you knew what I have, you would give me that fan." So the woman gives her the fan.

Fifteen minutes later the bubbie 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. 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 finally asks, "Ma'am, what is it, exactly, that you have? "

She smiles sweetly at him, and she says, "Chutzpah."

Chutzpah, of course, is a uniquely Jewish characteristic.  In fact, it has probably always been an essential Jewish expression, for without chutzpah we would never have survived two thousand years of statelessness and maniacal persecution.  Easygoing people who don’t push in where others think they don’t belong don’t survive the Holocaust, or defeat overwhelming enemy armies, or retain their identity when living in places that seem designed especially to assimilate everyone to some common, bland norm. 

The classic definition of chutzpah—which means nerve, gall, arrogance, and mild manipulation all rolled into one—is the tale of the guy who kills his parents and throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.  But I like this next one, better, I think.

A little old lady sells pretzels on a street corner for a dollar a piece.

Every day a guy leaves his office building at lunchtime, and as he passes the pretzel stand, he leaves her a dollar, but he never takes a pretzel.  He is simply giving her a donation, a little bit of tzedakah.  Naturally he feels good about it.

This goes on for 3 years. The two of them never speak. Every weekday, the guy comes by the pretzel lady, leaves a dollar, and walks away.  One day, as the man passes the old lady's stand and leaves his buck as usual, the pretzel lady says, “Hey. Wait a minute!  They're two dollars now!"


Chutzpah is what makes it possible for a tiny people, less than 1% of the world’s population, to produce world-beaters in so many areas of human accomplishment.  Chutzpah is what motivates a young guy like Mark Zuckerberg to drive Facebook into an entity with 1.5 billion members—billion, with a “b”—and what drove Bob Dylan to reinvent popular music and Albert Einstein to re-imagine the universe and remake the world.  It’s what helped so many Jews win numerous Nobel Prizes—25% of the total ever awarded—and get elected to the Senate in ridiculous numbers, even in states like Wisconsin and Minnesota, which have few Jews.  It is what drove Jews to invent Hollywood and the popular music industry and the entire comic book pantheon of superheroes out of whole cloth. 

Chutzpah was an utterly indispensible ingredient in creating the modern miracle of the State of Israel when no one believed it possible, what allowed small Jewish armies, from the Maccabees to the Israel Defense Forces, to defeat larger, better armed, and better-trained enemies, often through sheer audacity.  Chutzpah is what motivates Jewish hyper-achievers now, and always has, from Abraham to us.

And the truth is that what many people call fate or destiny is often the result of the determination of those who need it to make something positive happen—chutzpah.

There is a downside, of course, to chutzpah.  It can make Jewish groups of people less than tolerant of error, and occasionally, just slightly critical of others, and even of ourselves.  The ubiquity of chutzpah can make working with Jews, even for rabbis, even with rabbis, into a challenging experience—like herding cats—because we are willing to say anything if we believe it can lead to the result we think is desirable.  In the recent Iran nuclear deal mess we had important Jewish organizations taking on the President of the United States even when they had no chance to win.  That’s chutzpah. 

I’m reminded of Jackie Mason’s routine about the difference between a Jew and a non-Jew entering a restaurant.  The non-Jew comes up to the hostess.  He’s told that there is a 40-minute wait for his reservation.  The non-Jew says, “OK”, and takes a seat. 

Ah, but the Jew?  When he’s told that there’s a 40-minute wait for his reservation the Jew asks for the manager, convinces the staff they are in the wrong and that he needs to be seated immediately.  And when he gets a bad table?  The Jew says, “you call this a table for a man like me?” and starts moving tables and chairs to make a better space.  It’s not always pleasant to experience, but it certainly works…

Not long ago I had the sad duty of burying a fine man in our community.  His relatives and friends said beautiful things about him, but every single one also said the same thing about him: he always got the best table in every restaurant, and he always, always got the best room in the hotel.  It got to the point that when he would check in his friends would say to the desk clerk, or the hotel manager, “just give him the best room you have right now.  You’re going to be giving it to him eventually anyway…”  Chutzpah.  The single most notable Jewish quality.

Because without Chutzpah we would be exactly nowhere.  And that has to do with our long and challenging history of persecution.  When the game is rigged against you there are two choices: knuckle under and surrender, or rise to the challenge and find a way to succeed in spite of the odds.  It’s this latter course that we have always followed.

Or almost always. 

It goes back to the very first Jew, our great ancestor Abraham.  And the passage that demonstrates this predilection for chutzpah occurs in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. 

A little set-up.  In Genesis, Breisheet, in the Torah portion of Vayeira, earlier in the same sedrah from which we read the Akeida this Rosh HaShanah morning, God decides to punish the evil actions of the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  These two towns dripping in rottenness were located in the depths of the Jordan Rift Valley near the Dead Sea. We will visit the much more attractive features of that region when we go to Masada on our 5th Temple Emanu-El Pilgrimage trip to Israel May 29th to June 9th 2016; details are in your Rosh HaShanah leaflets, and we will be meeting about it the night after Yom Kippur, Thursday, September 24th at 5:30 PM.  Not to be too chutzpadik about promoting it… 

In any case, in that dialogue in Genesis about Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argues with God on behalf of the spectacularly sinful citizens of the worst cities of the ancient world, the Las Vegas and Atlantic City of that time.  Our father Abraham insists that God be absolutely certain that there are no righteous people in these awful cities before destroying them.  In fact, he has the temerity to insist that God should feel guilty about entertaining the very possibility of killing the innocent people along with the guilty.  As Abraham puts it, memorably, shall the Judge of the whole earth not act with justice? 

It is a supreme act of chutzpah, the first Jew using Jewish guilt to emotionally blackmail God into being more just and more merciful.  I love it. 

But you know, there are two Abrahams in this same Torah portion.  There is the guy who just does everything God commands in the section we read aloud today, the one that ends with a ram caught by his shofars in a bush.  That’s where the shofar service comes from, and it’s the section, called the Akeidat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, that rabbis have been preaching about since the beginning of time.

I’ll tell you, I never preach about the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac.  Because to me, the lesson we learn from it is not the one our rabbis teach.  You see, God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, on Mt. Moriah.  And Abraham did as he was told without complaint, did not protest at all, and the result is that he nearly ends up killing his beloved child on the altar of his faith. 

That, to me, is the obedient, faithful, compliant Abraham—you know, the non-Jewish version of Abraham.  It is the Abraham who doesn’t have the chutzpah to protest to God against this insane, unjust order.  The heck with the Abraham of the Akeidah.  I much prefer the Jewish Abraham.  I like the guy who argued for the no-goodniks of Sodom and Gomorrah, so concerned was he with the ethics of God’s justice.  That’s the kind of great Jew I admire.  That’s the Torah portion we really should be reading on Rosh HaShanah.  That’s the part of Genesis I will relish teaching and studying in our new class, The Genesis Project, that begins in October.

The Abraham with a deep commitment to chutzpah.   

It’s like that Direct TV commercial that is so popular now—with various actors and sports stars appearing in two versions: the winner, successful, Direct TV Rob Lowe or Peyton Manning or Randy Moss, and the diminished, pathetic, failed version of the same guy who has cable TV.

The Abraham of the Akeidah is the cable TV Abraham.  I want the Direct TV version of Abraham.  The one with Chutzpah.

Chutzpah is perhaps the truest measure of Jewish commitment and energy, the most accurate way to measure just how serious we are about our Judaism.  So tell me: how much chutzpah are you willing to demonstrate for a good cause?  Are you willing to be chutzpadik to make the world a better, holier place?  It’s time to find out.

My friends, there is a huge refugee crisis going viral in Europe right now.  It involves a flow of migrants from the Syrian civil war—which has produced perhaps 4 million refugees—as well as enormous numbers of people from Iraq who are fleeing ISIS, about 3 million people, and a large group of people from Afghanistan escaping from its perpetual war and chaos.  In addition, refugees are flooding out of Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa, by the tens of thousands.

In the last year or so about a third of a million refugees have tried to enter the European Union, seeking asylum and a new life in the developed countries of Europe, particularly those that have a strong economy, like Germany.  Many have tried to cross the Mediterranean in boats, usually overloaded.  Thousands have died when those boats capsized or sunk.  Last week we saw one awful photo of a small Syrian toddler, named Alyan Kurdi, who drowned escaping to Europe.  It is a heartbreaking photo, the drowned little boy in his tennis shoes and red shirt face-down on the beach.  It sparked the world’s compassion, at least briefly.

And then there are the images we have seen in recent days of immigrants forced into holding camps, placed on trains with no exit permitted except at these camps, having their names and registration numbers written on their arms in indelible ink.  These should remind all Jews of the Holocaust. 

And recently there have been violent anti-immigrant actions taken by neo-Nazi and far-right groups in Germany, Austria, and Hungary, with more anticipated as the crisis grows.  In fact, this current crisis marks the greatest refugee crisis the developed world has experienced since the end of World War II. 

I can tell you that this crisis did not come out of nowhere this past summer. I was in southeastern Turkey in early February this year, just 15 miles or so from the Syrian border, in a town called Sanliurfa.  There was a gigantic refugee camp in the next town of Haran, our patriarch Abraham’s own city in Biblical times.  That refugee camp was filled mostly with men who were fleeing ISIS.  The estimate given of its size was 500,000 people at the time.  I suspect it is larger still today.  The reason it was mostly men was that ISIS was forcing the men into its ranks, or killing them if they refused.  The women and children were mostly being left behind to protect the property and homes, in the belief that ISIS would not, at least at that time, murder the Muslim women or children.  This was likely inaccurate—the accounts of serial rapes perpetrated by ISIS are now legion—but it was the best these people could manage to figure out as a way to try to save some semblance of their lives.  Turkey has done as well as it possibly can for the huge population of refugees it has accepted, as has Jordan, and Lebanon.  But all three countries have limited resources to offer literally millions of refugees.

All of which raises a huge question: just what the devil has the United Nations been doing about this enormous refugee crisis over the past year?  And where was the viral outrage on the internet, and in the world community, and on our college campuses, over the incredible brutality that has forced millions of human beings out into mortal peril, leaving behind everything as they flee for their lives?

The UN, the most significant international body charged with responsibility for refugees and the situations that create them, has been too busy to help.  It has been focused on spending the majority of its time attacking Israel.  During the last year the UN General Assembly passed 23 resolutions.  20 of them condemned Israel.  3 of them—3!—addressed all the problems in the rest of the world.  While this enormous, intercontinental crisis was brewing, involving millions of migrants on three continents, Asia, Africa, and Europe, the most authoritative international body designed to deal with such crises was too busy condemning a small democracy and focusing on the plight of a people, the Palestinians, who are almost all living on their own land, with access to food, water, sanitation, education and world media.

And as the Syrian refugee crises became the lead story all around the world last week, do you know what important resolution the United Nations General Assembly passed?  It courageously decided to hold a vote that allowed the non-state of Palestine to fly its flag at the UN.  That is certainly stepping forward in a desperate time and boldly acting to solve the refugee problem…  No, the UN will not provide the leadership needed now.

The continent of Europe, the richest and most developed continent in the world, also was distracted and unable to see this humanitarian disaster developing.  It was focused on the Greek economic meltdown, and on pretending to act concerned about Ukraine being progressively dismembered by Russia.  Like the American press, the European media was also focused on the terrible aftereffects of the Gaza war last summer, and has been unable to see the exponentially greater disasters metastasizing in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Eritrea until the human flotsam from them washed up on European shores.  And even then, it has taken many months for the organized authorities of Europe to begin to think about a coping strategy beyond erecting barbed wire fences.

But what about the rich Gulf Arab states, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Emirates?  Surely they have volunteered to assist their fellow Arabs, the Syrian refugees?  No, no they haven’t.  They are too worried about destabilizing their own autocratic regimes to allow any of these desperate souls to find sanctuary there.

So I’m afraid, my friends, this time it’s up to us.

We are taught in Pirkei Avot, bmakom shein anashim hishtadel lihiyot ish.  In a place where no one is a mensch, strive to be one. 

It is, of course, pure chutzpah to seek to use moral authority and insist that we directly act to solve this gigantic refugee crisis.  It is also the single most Jewish act we can fulfill over this High Holy Day period.

When you arrived you received a flier asking you to contact our elected representatives and urge them to accept more Syrian refugees.  I know, it seems strange for Jews to be asking America to accept Arab refugees.  By its very nature that may seem contra-logical to some of you. 

But as our tradition tells us, our own father was a wandering Aramean—from, well, Syria.  We have been Wandering Jews throughout history.  We know what it is like to be a refugee without finding any country willing to welcome us, or even accept us.  We remember the 6 million Jews who could find no country willing to accept them, and who died in the Shoah.

This is the right thing to do.  It is the essential thing to do.  And it must be done now.  And done with energy, with commitment, with great chutzpah.  Call the president.  Write our Senators.  Call and write our congresswoman, Martha McSally.

You are also asked today to make a contribution to HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, that does such an incredible, overlooked job assisting all refugee who are migrating, of every race and religion and origin.  HIAS’s website is listed.  Please, help them save lives.  We here at Temple certainly need your Chai Campaign contributions. But help HIAS, too.

And we ask as well that you seek local ways to bring some of these Syrian refugees here to Tucson.  America is great because of its diversity.  And it is truly great when it is most merciful, and rescues the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free—and struggling to stay alive.  We will update you when we know more.  But you can help by volunteering your own energy to assist our local refugee resettlement efforts as they advance.

As we enter this 5776 year, take action to make this a holier year.  Use your God-given Chutzpah, and as the Abraham at Sodom and Gomorrah did, argue for justice.

And then maybe we chuzpadik Jews can use that chutzpah for good, and help solve this crisis.  We can be the change we long to see in this new year.

L’Shana Tovah Tikateivu v’Teichateimu. 


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Tucson, AZ 85716

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