Natan Sharansky, famed refusenik and former MK who today heads the Jewish Agency, spent nine years in prison and labor camps in the former Soviet Union.
His crime? A desire to live in his ancestral homeland. When asked in an interview how he survived the terrible conditions of the Russian Gulag, including 400 days in punishment cells, he answered that his faith, his Book of Psalms, and his feeling of “inner freedom,” gave him the strength and courage to carry on. Behind the steel bars, he said, he felt freer than the prison guards who held him captive.
Freedom is a state of mind. And real freedom requires a little chutzpah.
It has been said, “It is easier to take the Jew out of the Exile, than to take the Exile out of the Jew.” While in Egypt, the Jewish People could not even hear God’s promise of redemption because of their “shortness of spirit” (Exodus 6:9). Even the Hebrew name for Egypt, “mitzrayim,” implies constriction and limitation, from the Hebrew “meitzar.” The bondage in Egypt wasn’t merely a physical bondage, but a mental one. And so, while still in Egypt, God began the process of taking the Jew out of the psychology of Exile; ridding him of his slave mentality.
A slave’s time is not his own, it belongs to his master. The first commandment that God gave the Jewish People was to proclaim the New Month (Exodus 12:2), empowering them to create a calendar and proclaim festivals, making them masters of their our own time and the masters of their destiny.
And in the greatest act of chutzpah, God commands the nascent Jewish nation to slaughter a lamb or goat, the Egyptian god, and roast it over fire. Our Bible is not a recipe book, but requires that the Passover offering be roasted. Why? Because when you are having a barbecue in your backyard, the whole neighborhood knows! Just imagine what it must have smelled like in Egypt that night, as Jews prepared to leave. They were leaving as free men – physically, spiritually and psychologically.
A little chutzpah is also necessary in our service of God, as individuals.
Rabbi Moshe Isserles (16th C. Poland) writes at the beginning of his commentary to the Code of Jewish Law, “One should not be ashamed in front of another who mocks him in his service of God.” If you are always looking over your shoulder, you’re not free. As Jews, we take pride in eating our unleavened bread and bitter herbs, along with all of the other mitzvot we observe, without wondering what the neighbors will say.
Audacity, or brazenness, got us out of Egypt.
That attitude kept us going for 2,000 years without a homeland, and it’s that same attitude that founded the State of Israel against all odds. No longer are we the “shtetl Jew.”
Since the founding of the State of Israel, the Jew is finally free to live and practice his Judaism without looking over his shoulder.
But today, the State of Israel is in desperate need of leaders with some chutzpah. Leaders who don’t cower to international pressure or capitulate to the demands of the White House or State Department. Leaders who will do what is in the best interest of this country’s safety and security – at all costs. Leaders with some backbone. Chutzpah is what got us out of Egypt, and its what we need to confront today’s challenges.
The next time you hear someone repeating the old stereotype that Jews are pushy, just remember that Jewish survival has always required a little chutzpah.
The author lives and teaches in Jerusalem.