The Power of Chutzpah

March 17, 2019

As back-to-back holidays go, Purim and Passover could not be more different. Purim is a day of antics and feasting, while on Passover we use matzah and salt water to transport ourselves back to the days of slavery. Despite their differences, these holidays are both redemption stories of the Jewish people, relaying a narrative of suffering and rescue, and each involves a ton of chutzpah.

Though all too often relegated to cliché humor, chutzpah, which can be translated as “audacity,” is actually a Jewish value with a lot of precedent in our history. Think of Abraham arguing with G-d, or Miriam speaking out to her father, the community leader Amram, that Jewish families must stay intact in the face of dehumanization. These are bold words from two of the greatest biblical figures, and this tradition of boldness is very much present in both the Purim and Passover narratives.

In Megillat Esther, Queen Esther and her cousin, the Torah sage Mordechai, discuss the imminent destruction of the Jewish people of Persia. The king’s evil advisor Haman has secured the king’s approval to order a kingdom-wide genocide of its Jewish citizens, and time is short if Esther is to change his mind. Mordechai urges her to approach the king to intervene on behalf of their people. It is a known crime to call upon the king uninvited, but at Mordechai’s urging, Esther understands that her purpose is to use her position to influence the king and save the Jewish people.

In ancient Persia, it was culturally unthinkable for a woman to approach her king, or even her husband, without being summoned. Esther knows that Vashti was removed from her royal position and, according to commentators, put to death for refusing the King’s requests; disobedience does not go unpunished in Persia. Nevertheless, after seven days of preparation and fasting, Esther takes both her life and the lives of her people in her hands: she approaches King Achashverosh to plead her cause, revealing her own Jewish identity and begging the king to save her people. In that moment, she sets aside complacency and personal safety. Her chutzpah, her readiness to risk everything to speak up for her nation, ultimately saves the Persian Jewish community from annihilation.

In these moments of hesitation and fear, Esther may have drawn strength from a powerful example of chutzpah that occurred earlier in Jewish history. After all, wasn’t Moses in much the same position? Once a favored member of the royal family, Moses was called upon to approach the powerful ruler of his country to advocate for his people. G-d commanded Moses to tell Pharaoh to set the Jewish people free.

What chutzpah is this, to call upon the pharaoh of Egypt in the height of the country’s magnificence, and demand that he let his slave nation go free? Surely the danger of this undertaking was not lost on Moses, who says, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? And how can I possibly get the Israelites out of Egypt?” Though it isn’t by Moses’ words alone that the slaves are freed, his ability to gather the chutzpah to intervene in the face of uncertainty and danger is what makes him the deliverer that G-d chose and the Hebrews longed for.

These two holidays on the Jewish calendar hold potent lessons on the power of using one’s chutzpah to speak up for freedom in the face of injustice, to root ourselves in what we know to be right and to fight for it. It is never easy, not for Moses and Esther and often not for us, to find our voices in moments of fear, societal pressure, or danger. In those times, we can turn to these examples of what that fear can look and feel like (“Who am I to…”), and what it looks like to overcome that fear. Elie Wiesel once said, “Perhaps God does not want us to be passive; perhaps God wants us to fight, to argue, to question.” We are meant to use our chutzpah as we figure out how we can help, to say what needs to be said.

With best wishes for a joyful Purim and a wonderful Passover!

Sara Bellin is a non-profit program manager and freelance writer in the Boston area. By day she engages with contemporary challenges in Jewish education, and then pulls up her chair again at home to write articles relating to Jewish lifestyle, identity and values. Bellin lives in Brookline with her husband and two year old son.

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