Whether we say it out loud or just imply it subtly, we tend to place a high value on chutzpah in Jewish tradition. The word itself doesn’t have a precise translation into English, but the idea has made its way into our secular culture: audaciously daring to act, to speak up, or to stand out, when it would be easier to sit quietly and let life happen to you. For Jews, it may account for everything from our culture’s survival during 1800 years in exile to the success of innovators like Sam Goldwyn or Albert Einstein.
Before Yom Kippur, I happened to read an old Hasidic story which underscores the role chutzpah plays in our spiritual lives.
As the story goes, Elimelekh of Lizhensk once sent his hasidim (disciples) to a tailor’s house on the eve of Yom Kippur, so they could learn how to pray. They gathered at the man’s window and watched as he and his family said their afternoon prayers and ate their pre-fast meal, all with the simplicity of a humble tailor and his family.
After the meal, the tailor took two account books off his bookcase and declared, “Ribono shel Olam – Master of the Universe – these are the sins which I and my household have committed against You in the past year…” And he began to read from the first book – simple sins, minor things that one might expect from anyone.
When he concluded, he opened the second book, a much thicker one. “And now,” he said, “let me remind You of some of the things You have done in the last year…” And again he read. This time the list was much longer. It included diseases and famines, wars and pogroms, orphaned children and bereaved parents, in addition to all of the personal hardships that he and his family had endured.
At last, the tailor finished his list. “To judge it fairly, Ribono shel Olam, it would seem that if anything, You owe me. But as it is the Day of Atonement, I will make you a deal: You forgive me, and I forgive You.”
The hasidim were aghast. They returned to Elimelekh and said, “Rabbi! Such terrible things this tailor said!”
But the rabbi shook his head and said, “You must know that every year, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, waits to hear this tailor’s prayer. For its sake alone do blessing and joy come into our world!”
In his book Who Gets Promoted, Who Doesn’t, and Why, career consultant Donald Asher offers twelve insights on what it takes to get ahead in a competitive business world. It goes without saying that things like doing good work and understanding organizational culture are key. Running through Asher’s insights and anecdotes, however, is a consistent theme: advancement requires daring – chutzpah.
Getting too comfortable or being content to let circumstances dictate our next move can make a real difference in how we feel about our lives and our dreams – whether we’re looking for a new job, angling for a promotion, or taking on new responsibilities.
In our story above, Rabbi Elimelekh gives a great deal of credit to the tailor’s chutzpah – even seeing the whole world as depending on this audacious prayer. We may not all be ready to go toe-to-toe with our Creator, but a little chutzpah may still be the difference between deserving the life we have and having the life we deserve.
Noah Ferro grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, where he graduated college with a degree in History and English from Tennessee State University. He spent several years working in libraries and bookstores before beginning HUC-JIR’s Rabbinical program. In May 2015, he received a Master’s in Religious Education (MARE) from the school’s New York campus. Noah is finishing his program as a Rabbinical student at the Cincinnati campus, anticipating a May 2017 ordination. He has also begun a PhD program at HUC in Rabbinic literature. As a rabbi, he hopes to teach Talmud and other rabbinic texts to adults and teens.
During his rabbinical studies, Noah has served congregations in Illinois and Tennessee as a student rabbi, worked as a chaplain in a Cincinnati-area hospital, and taught in four supplementary religious schools (not including student pulpits), as well as in one overnight summer camp. He is currently working on his senior thesis, which includes a commentary and translation of Chayyei Adam, an 18th-century digest of Jewish law by Rabbi Avraham Danzig. Noah and his wife Cassondra recently became parents with the birth of their son Lev in February.