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Chutzpah!

“Chutzpah” is a word typically used to describe someone’s actions that are out of line. Parents or teachers will reprimand a child for being “chutzpadik,” for mouthing off or for doing something brazen and audacious. This definitely makes it sound like a negative character trait.


There isn’t a perfect English translation for chutzpah, which is why the Oxford dictionary considers it a word in English today, with the definition being: “Chutzpah, noun, behavior, or a person’s attitude, that offends or shocks people but is so confident that they may feel forced to admire it.”


That last part—so confident that they may feel forced to admire it—got my attention. It means that not always is chutzpah a bad thing, and when channeled properly it can actually have positive ramifications, allowing one to achieve something beyond the reach of typical “good” behavior.


Take Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh's dreams as an example. When the ruler of Egypt dreamt of seven thin cows and ears of grain consuming their larger counterparts without any change to themselves, he sought out the perfect interpretation. Many suggestions were made by his advisers, but none were as satisfactory as Joseph’s, which not only predicted seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine, but also included advice on how to preempt the famine by storing grain during the years of abundance.


Joseph wasn’t asked for a solution, he was merely tasked with coming up with an interpretation to the dreams and nothing more. He could have thought to himself, “Who am I to offer advice to the king? I should just stay in my lane and offer an interpretation without pushing beyond that.”


Yet, he recognized that the dream itself contained the solution, so in fact the advice he gave Pharaoh was part of the interpretation. Without his suggestion to store grain for the famine, the interpretation would not have been complete and would have been no different from the other attempts to decipher the cryptic dream.


He managed to overcome the instinct to keep to himself and follow the rules, and instead exhibited exemplary chutzpah in determining that his advice was warranted. He risked being chastised for stepping out of his box, but it was a risk worth taking—as was evident with the rest of the story, his becoming viceroy of Egypt and eventually, many years later, being reunited with his family.


A similar display of chutzpah exists in the story of Chanukah, when the Maccabees, a small group of Jewish warriors refused to toe the line of the Seleucid-Greek empire that occupied the Land of Israel in the 2nd century BCE. The occupiers used their force of numbers to impose their hellenistic beliefs on the Jewish inhabitants of Israel. In theory they would have allowed the Jews to live peacefully as long as the rules were adhered to. They were allowed to live as Jews and even practice the rational aspects of Judaism, but anything that wasn’t perfectly grounded in logic was outlawed.


The Maccabees would have none of it. They brazenly and audaciously revolted against the occupiers—despite the odds being stacked against them—eventually leading to the recapture of the Holy Temple and the miraculous rekindling of the menorah. They too refused to stay in their lane and go along with the new normal. They insisted on standing up for themselves and their beliefs, bringing about victory and salvation to all of Israel.


So go ahead, be like Joseph, be like the Maccabees, exhibit some serious chutzpah and don’t ever listen to the naysayers telling you to stay in your lane. That’s how we will truly make a difference, and the rest of the world will be forced to admire it.


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