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Parshas Tetzaveh (5778)

Chutzpah

“You shall make a Head-plate of pure gold, and you shall engrave upon it ...‘Holy to G-d’ … It shall be on Aaron's forehead so that Aaron shall bring forgiveness ...” (Exodus 28:36-38).

The Talmud in Zevachim 88b teaches that each of the High Priest's begadim, or vestments, symbolized Divine atonement for various sins. The Tzitz, Head-plate, denoted Divine forgiveness for brazenness and chutzpah. The Hebrew words for brazenness are azus metzach, literally a "bold brow;" hence, the Tzitz that is worn on the metzach, brow, of the High Priest.

We need to understand how the High Priest’s wearing of the Head-plate with the words “Holy to G-d” engraved on it atones for the Jewish people’s sin of brazenness and chutzpah.

Furthermore, we are taught in a Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers) 5:24: He [Yehudah ben Teima] used to say: The brazen go to Gehinnom (Hell), but those with shame go the Garden of Eden. May it be Your will, G-d, our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers, that the Holy Temple be rebuilt, speedily in our days, and grant us our share in Your Torah.

What is the connection between the first part of the Mishnah, which describes the spiritual danger of brazenness and the virtue of shame, and the second part of the Mishnah, which is a prayer for the coming of the Messiah?

Chutzpah, azus, brazenness, by any standard, is a character trait that demonstrates a person's lack of shame. It is a character trait that goes against the personality of a Jew, considering the fact that, according to our tradition, Jews are defined by three traits: baishanim, they have a sense of shame; rachamanim, they are compassionate; gomlei chasadim, they perform acts of loving kindness.

Without a sense of shame, there’s no stopping a person from doing the most depraved and immoral acts. In fact, chutzpah is considered the hallmark of Amalek, the arch-enemy of the Jewish people, who was so brazen as to attack the Jews – and the Torah for which they stood - even after witnessing how G-d punished the Egyptians for oppressing His people.

There are times, however, when chutzpah can be a good thing. When it comes to doing the right thing – when we have to take an unpopular stand for a moral cause in the face of overwhelming peer and social pressures - then we need to bring out that trait of brazenness. As the very same Yehudah ben Teima taught in the preceding Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:23): Be “bold” as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion, to carry out the will of your Father in Heaven.

In this way, the Tzitz worn on the High Priest’s brow– the part of the face associated with boldness and chutzpah – engraved with the words “Holy to G-d”, served to constantly remind the Jewish people of the potential danger that chutzpah carries with it, and that it should be only be used in a holy way – to carry out the will of our Father in Heaven. Thus, the Tzitz achieved atonement for the sin of brazenness.

We have a fascinating tradition that is recorded in the Talmud in Sotah 49b regarding what the world will be like in the pre-Messianic era (and which the Chafetz Chaim and other great Rabbis claimed we are in presently). It states that in the Ikvisa d’Meshicha, the period when the “Footsteps of the Messiah” can be heard, there will be a tremendous amount of chutzpah.

I think that statement pretty much sums up our present-day society where there is absolutely no shame, anything goes, and nothing is left for the imagination, if you know what I mean. Just look at the kind of trash Hollywood is dishing out these days, the things that we see on magazine covers, the heads of state who publicly act in ways that would make anybody blush a mere 50 years ago, and so on. Additionally, we are living in a culture that glorifies youth, and the chutzpah and brazen attitude towards the older generations and the morality and life values that they stand for is quite prevalent and frankly shocking.

To counter all that – to stay sane and moral in a world that has gone haywire – takes a tremendous amount of chutzpah. To say “no” to the decadence on television despite the lure of all those spicy reality shows, to dress more modestly even as Paris (the fashion industry and the hotel heiress) reveals everything, to get married and settle down when all your friends are running away from commitment, to teach traditional (Jewish) values to your kids in a world where religion-bashing and secularism is at an all-time high – one needs to be real brazen.

Perhaps that’s the import of the Mishnah quoted above. Yehuda ben Teima taught us that brazenness is a horrible character trait and that without a sense of shame, we are in mortal (and moral) danger. Yet, at the same time, he foresaw the period of Ikvisa d’Meshicha – our present day and age – when the chutzpah and lack of shame - and the disdain for anything G-dly and holy - will be so strong and prevalent that we will need all the boldness and chutzpah we can muster in order to preserve our morality and values and everything that is “Holy to G-d”. He therefore ends the Mishnah with a prayer “that the Holy Temple be rebuilt, speedily in our days” and the entire world will become moral and spiritual and holy like it was meant to be – so that we can once again go back to our traditional trait of being baishanim, having a sense of shame – and all that undesirable chutzpah will be banished from our lives forever.

This Shabbos, as Jews all around the world gather in synagogues to publicly read Parshas Zachor – a passage in the Torah in which we are commanded to remember the chutzpah and brazenness of the nation of Amalek and to rid this evil influence from the face of the earth – let us commit to begin that rectification process by using chutzpah in a positive way by standing up and fighting for what we believe in – no matter what others might say.

Shabbat Shalom!!

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