January 20, 2019

The Birth of Chutzpah

We believe in a God who dreams. The Torah is the story of the transaction between God’s dreams and human reality. God dreams of a world of goodness. God creates humanity – fashioned in the divine image – to share the dream. But human beings betrayed God’s dreams. We filled the world with violence and murder. God despaired of having created humanity and decided to wash the world clean. But one human being caught God’s eye – one good man. So God saved Noah and his family, together with a set of earth’s animals to begin the world again.

And again, humanity disappointed God. We defiled God’s world with idolatry and evil. Once more, God’s dream was betrayed. This time, God pursued a different strategy – God took a partner. Having failed to create the good man, having failed to choose the good man, God endeavored to teach goodness, beginning with one family, one man – Abraham. Through Abraham, God would reach humanity’s heart and share the divine dream. “Go forth… and be a blessing” (Gen. 12:1-2).

This is the Torah’s most radical idea: God needs us. God enlists us as partners. To share the dream of a world of goodness, God establishes a covenant with us.

Partnership is a unique relationship. A partner must disclose himself. God wonders: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? … Since I have singled him out that he may instruct his children to keep the way of the Lord” (Gen. 18:17-19). God is bound by the terms of the covenant.

How radical is this? Contrast it with another biblical character. Job lost his children, wealth and health. Out of his agony, he accuses God and despairs of God’s justice in the world: “He destroys the blameless and the guilty… The earth is handed over to the wicked. He covers the eyes of its judges. If it is not He, then who?” (Job 9:22-24) Finally, God responds to Job, “out of the tempest [God] said, ‘Who is this who darkens counsel, speaking without knowledge?'” (Job 38:1) Displaying the sweep of divine power, God challenges Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Have you ever commanded the day to break? Have you penetrated to the sources of the sea?” (Job 38: 4, 12, 16) Stunned into submission by God’s awesome power, Job surrenders, “I know that you can do everything, that nothing is impossible for you… I therefore recant and relent being but dust and ashes,” Job says (Job 42:2-6). Job is not part of the covenant. He accepts God’s display of power as the last word and relents before he receives the explanation of God’s justice that he had so adamantly sought.

In contrast, Abraham is God’s partner, and partners can disagree. When God decries the evil of Sodom, “Abraham came forward and said, ‘Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? … Far be it from you to do such a thing to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that righteous and the evil fare alike. Far be it from you! Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice?… I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.'” (Gen. 18:23-25, 27)

The language echoes Job. Abraham, too, knows he is dust and ashes, but Abraham is God’s partner, and partners are accountable to one another. Partners share a common moral language. In the ensuing narrative, Abraham bargains with God. For 50 righteous, God will spare the city. For 45, 40, 30, 20, 10. It is breathtaking to witness. Undaunted by God’s power, Abraham assails God in the name of God’s own dream. Thus is born covenantal chutzpah – the quintessential element of Jewish character.

Covenantal chutzpah reflects an unremitting expectation and demand that the world can rise to a higher moral standard. Cynicism, stoic resignation, passivity and surrender are foreign to the Jewish character. Serenity is not a Jewish virtue – not as long as the world is filled with evil and suffering. We share God’s dreams. We are not about to accept quietly the world as it is. We are God’s partner. In that is our highest purpose.