By Rabbi Shohama
Gut yuntif, everyone! A good holiday!
Our theme this year is overall strength – the different dimensions of strength that we need to power our moral and spiritual transformation. So far we have focused on resilience and heart-based courage to do the work of atonement and forgiveness.
Our theme for tonight is chutzpah. You don’t have to be Jewish to know that chutzpah means gutsy; chutzpah means daring. Sometimes it is used in a negative way, to mean gall, but we are referring to the positive side of chutzpah, as the daring to do something inherently positive.
Yom Kippur is also about clearing our blemishes, our dark spots, so that we can shine Divine Light brighter than before. Although soul cleansing in Judaism is part of our daily liturgy, we focus on it as a community beginning with Rosh Hashanah and winding up with Yom Kippur – the 25 hours given to us to give a big push – together, as a community. Indeed the title of our prayer book this year is Stronger Together.
I am reminded of a Hasidic story based on a book of the Talmud, a large collection of ancient Jewish wisdom. In its Mishnah Negaim 2:5, which deals with laws dealing with types of blemishes, Talmud says Kol hanega’im adam ro’eh, chutz mi nig’ei atzmo / “All blemishes may be examined by the person [who has them], except his own flaws.” That is to say, we cannot trust ourselves to see our own faults clearly.
This story gives an example. It features a prominent doctor who was fond of tooting his own horn.
“One day he was traveling in a carriage when he saw the local rabbi walking. He stopped to offer the rabbi a ride. As they traveled together, the doctor began to speak about his achievements.
‘You know, Rabbi, I get a lot of clients who can’t afford to pay but I never turn them away, I treat them exactly the same as my wealthier clients.’
‘Ah, I also do that,’ replied the rabbi.
The doctor figured that perhaps the rabbi was referring to the spiritual advice he gives his followers.
‘Also, a lot of times patients need expensive medicines; if they can’t afford it, I provide them for free.’
‘Ah, I also do that,’ said the rabbi.
Maybe he means that sometimes he gives people money for food, the doctor thought.
‘Sometimes people need days of post-operative care. I give it to them voluntarily, even though I have so little time.’
‘Ah, I also do that,’ replied the rabbi.
So it went on, the doctor continued to heap praise upon himself, with the rabbi answering each time, ‘Ah, I also do that.’
Eventually the doctor lost his patience and he asked the rabbi, ‘Rabbi, I don’t understand, you’re not a doctor, how can you do all these things?’
‘No, no, all I meant was I also do that, I also only talk about my good qualities!’
If you’re like me, you chuckle, but the story has an underlying message that is serious. The doctor in the story was exceedingly generous, but his generosity wasn’t balanced with appropriate anavah, humility, and his excessive boasting was a character flaw. Every quality of character has its opposite, and it is a matter of judgment to know at a given time what behavior is most appropriate.
Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a psychiatrist, author, and mentor to so many (including me) who passed last January, wrote that “The Talmudic commentaries anticipated modern psychological discoveries by many centuries. ‘Denial’ and ‘projection’ go hand in hand to prevent us from making the necessary improvements in our character.”
Yom Kippur, this holy time, is given to us as a gift, that through the many prayers that focus us on doing a personal inventory, we will identify in ourselves changes we want to make to improve ourselves. Even though we likely will not see all our faults clearly, we are likely to find some aspects we want to improve. When we release the nega’im, the blemishes that block our godly light, we become greater bearers of Divine Light.
Psalm 27, which is featured in our prayer book, reads “God! You are my light! Whom need I fear?” We all have this Divine birthright of Divine Light, and can open to this Light and share it.
Sometimes chutzpah is what we need to make one or more big changes in our life – perhaps the decision to move from where we live, to change our job or to retire, to enter a relationship or to leave one, to focus more on our health and our own needs, or to focus more on our service to others and to the planet. COVID has forced a number of changes in our lives, and chutzpah may be needed to cope in the best possible ways.
In Torah there are many examples of chutzpah; the decision to follow Moses and Miriam out of Egypt across the sea into an unknown land is certainly one of the most well known. We refer to it during every service when we sing, “Mi Chamocha.” A more recent example is that many of us have grandparents or parents who fled a dangerous country to cross the Atlantic and begin a new life, in a new country with a new language.
We are, all of us, made from our Creator’s Light, and like TV channels and the internet, can access that Light “on demand.” It takes chutzpah, daring – to believe ourselves worthy. Let us have that chutzpah. Tonight! Tomorrow morning and afternoon! Before the Gates close tomorrow at sunset! Let us commit ourselves to search deeply and open to new ways of being. Not one of us perfect. Let us have chutzpah – to ask God, or the Good within us, or our Higher Selves, or our conscience – whatever we call that godly spark– to shine through us and show us what needs change. Let us have daring – to smile when we may not feel like it so that Holy light will shine through us. Or daring – to feel our emotional pain and let the tears begin to cleanse our heart and soul.
There will be free time – later tonight, and tomorrow during breaks in the services – to do this deep work of self-study, and of transformation. With the support of our community and all that is Holy, let us use this time for our highest good.
Whether we are young or old, as long as our soul resides within us and our mind is functioning, we can use our chutzpah to motivate teshuvah, personal spiritual transformation.
With Holy light we can inspire ourselves, and motivate others to make this world a brighter, safer, healthier place to live.
May it be so!