Thursday, June 22, 2023

The Power of Jewish Chutzpah


Hagana Ship "Exodus 1947" Off the Coast of Israel, Lazar Dunner, 1947

There is a tale told about the small Jewish community in Poland that lived in the village of a local nobleman, or Poritz. One day, the Poritz adopted a puppy, and grew extremely attached to his new dog. The Poritz’ priest and confessor, who was virulently anti-semitic, saw this as an opportunity. He convinced the simple-minded Poritz of a bizarre slander: the Jews know how to teach dogs how to talk, but were refusing to teach the Poritz's puppy because they hated him.


The leaders of the local Jewish community were summoned to the Poritz's palace and given an ultimatum: either they teach the puppy how to talk, or they must leave town. They pleaded repeatedly with the Poritz, but the Poritz refused to change his mind; he gave them a final week to decide what they wanted to do.


At the end of the week, the Jewish community gathered together one final time. In desperation, the leader of the community called out to the crowd: "Can anyone here help?" In the back of the room a humble tailor raised his hand and said: "Let me go speak to the Poritz." With no other alternatives, they sent in the tailor.


About an hour later, the tailor walked out of the palace along with the Poritz's dog. He announced proudly to the community that they have nothing more to worry about and can stay right where they are.


The leaders of the community were stunned; they ran over to the tailor to find out what he did, and why he was walking the dog.


The tailor explained that he told the Poritz that indeed, the Jews can teach dogs how to speak. However, the process is very complicated and time intensive; after all, even a human child takes a few years to learn how to speak. The tailor told the Poritz that if he allows him to take the puppy and train it non-stop for 6 years, it will learn how to speak.


The leaders were horrified. How could the tailor tell the Poritz this absurd lie? What will happen in 6 years' time?


The tailor smiled and said: "What will happen? In the next 6 years, I could die, the Poritz could die, and the dog could die. Why are you worried about that now?"


This is a classic story of Jewish chutzpah; it flouts the rules, mocks convention, and ignores risk, all while driven by desperation. After centuries of dispersion and displacement, this trait of chutzpah has developed into an art form.


Chutzpah plays a central role in the narrative of Parshat Shelach. The spies, who are sent to check on the promised land, offer a negative report. The people, hearing this, turn against Moses and God and organize a return to Egypt. God then appears, and condemns the entire generation to wander for 40 years in the desert and die there.


Immediately, regret sets in. “Then Moses told these words to all the children of Israel, and the people mourned greatly. And they rose early in the morning and went up to the top of the mountain, saying, “Here we are, and we will go up to the place which the Lord has promised, for we have sinned!” (Numbers 14:39-40.) Moses warns this group of would-be pioneers not to defy God, for it will not succeed. Even so, they stubbornly ignore Moses and press forward, and are killed by the Canaanites and Amalekites in battle.


An unusual Hebrew word is employed to describe their decision to ascend the mountain: “va’yaapilu.” (It actually defines this episode, and the people who ascended the mountain are referred to in the Talmud as the “ma’apilim.”) This word is translated by Rashi as “insolence,” which means the verse is saying: “They defiantly ascended.” The ma’apilim are the role models of chutzpah, ignoring Moses and God while taking destiny into their own hands.


But the question remains as to why God rejected the ma’apilim in the first place. By expressing a willingness to go into battle, aren’t the ma’apilim repenting for the sin of the spies' cowardice? Why doesn’t God support their plan to enter the land?


Two perspectives arise in the commentaries. Some, like Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, see the ma’apilim as spiritual failures, and that they are being punished for defying God’s command. They should not have invaded the land on their own initiative; the very failure of the ma’apilim is their chutzpah


But others take a very different view. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin explains that the ma’apilim were misguided idealists who wanted to repent for the sin of the spies and were desperate to enter the land. They even accepted the inevitability of losing in battle. What they hoped for was to be taken by the Canaanites as captives, and brought to live in Israel. (And even if they would be killed in battle, they would at least have their bodies buried in Israel.) The ma’apilim were good people who were determined to make their way to the Promised Land, even if it cost them their freedom or their lives. They only failed because they misapprehended what God wanted of them.


In the last century, the narrative of the ma’apilim has taken on new meaning. For anti-Zionists like the Munkaczer Rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira, the lesson is simple: It is wrong to ascend to Israel without divine assent. He sees this text as a prophetic prediction, and connects this passage to the 1929 Arab riots, which he blames on a march by young Zionists to the Western Wall.


Within the Zionist movement, the ma’apilim were role models. In 1919, Levin Kipnes wrote the “ma’apilim song,” which, in contrast to the biblical text, urges the Jews of his time to “go up, go up; to the top of the mountain, go up.”


Perhaps due to the popularity of this song, the term ma'apilim was used to describe the over 100,000 Jews who immigrated to British-controlled Palestine. The Peel Commission of 1937 limited Jewish immigration into Palestine to 12,000 people a year. This restriction occurred precisely at the time that Jews most desperately needed a safe haven. As Chaim Weizmann put it, for the millions of Jews then left in Europe at the time, "The world is divided into places where they cannot live and places where they cannot enter."


Without any real choice, Zionist organizations ramped up illegal immigration in defiance of the authorities. These were modern-day ma’apilim, who with courage and chutzpah ascended to their homeland.


They took on immense risks. On February 24, 1942, the Struma, a ship sailing from Romania with 800 Jewish refugees, was torpedoed in the Black Sea by a Soviet submarine. There was only one survivor.


Even those who managed to get to mandatory Palestine often ended up in jail. Some were imprisoned in Atlit, south of Haifa, or sent to Cyprus; 1600 refugees were brought to Mauritius where they spent nearly 5 years. But against all odds, nearly 100,000 ma’apilim made their way from Europe to the future State of Israel.


One particularly daring episode inspired the Leon Uris novel (and later movie) Exodus. On July 11th, 1947, the steamship President Warfield set sail to Mandatory Palestine from France. On this ship built for 800 people were nearly 4,500 Holocaust survivors. As it neared the coast it was met by 6 British warships. With its true identity no longer a secret, the crew unfurled a flag saying: “Haganah Ship - Exodus 1947.” The British Navy boarded the ship, and in the battle that ensued, two members of the crew and one of the passengers were killed.


In order to deter future illegal immigration, Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Minister, was determined to send these refugees back to Europe. The very next day the passengers were reboarded on three smaller ships and sent to France.


When they reached France, the refugees were promised citizenship and financial support if they would leave the boats. But they refused, and the boats sat in port. After languishing for three weeks in the summer heat, Bevin sent the boats to Hamburg in the British military zone of Germany. Upon arriving there, British soldiers beat and bullied the survivors until they left the ship.


Bevin’s response backfired dramatically. The world was shocked by the spectacle of Holocaust survivors being brutally forced to return to Germany, and moved by the enduring courage of the survivors. This was a turning point that won many over to the Zionist cause just a short few months before the United Nations vote on establishing a Jewish State.


These modern-day ma’apilim were successful.


However, the contemporary usage of the word ma’apilim is unsettling; how can the biblical ma’apilim be considered role models? Rabbi Asher Weiss, in his commentary on this parsha, tells how he had a teacher in Yeshiva that forbade his students from singing Kipnes’ ma’apilim song.


But later, Rabbi Weiss took another view. He quotes Rav Zadok of Lublin, (Tzidkat Hatzaddik 46) who offers a fascinating exegesis of this biblical passage. When Moses urges the ma’apilim not to go into battle, he says: “Why are you disobeying the Lord’s command? For this will not succeed.” Rav Zadok writes that the implication of the verse is: “This (time it will not succeed)...but another time it will.”


This is virtually a prophetic statement; Rav Tzadok, who died in 1900, was predicting acts of heroism that would happen decades after his death.


But Rav Zadok explains why he offers this interpretation. What the ma’apilim did was a supreme act of chutzpah, grabbing hold of leadership on their own and not waiting for Moses or God. Perhaps this chutzpah was improper in the desert, while the Jews stood under God’s divine presence. But the Talmud says chutzpah will be necessary in the times of the Messiah. During a godless time of conflict and confusion, no one would be sending out invitations to redemption. It would take chutzpah to get things done; and then the world would need the spirit of the ma’apilim to return.


And that is exactly what happened.


After the British forced the passengers of the Exodus 1947 off their boats in Hamburg, they were taken to two Displaced Person camps. Upon registration, when asked their country of origin, all the survivors responded "Palestine". Soon enough, they made new plans. Within a year, nearly every passenger on the Exodus 1947 found their way to the newly created State of Israel.


This is exactly what Jewish chutzpah is all about: a willingness to pursue one’s destiny, no matter what everyone else says; and the ma’apilim had plenty of chutzpah. They were going to go home, no matter what.


I imagine if they had to, they would have found a way to teach a dog to talk.

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