T'rumah: The "Hellishness" of Chutzpah

D’var Torah; Shabbat T’rumah
Exodus 25:1-27:19
February 24-25, 2012 – 2 Adar 5772

Rabbi Art Levine, Ph.D., J.D.

The Hellishness of Chutzpah

This week’s Torah portion, T’rumah, provides detailed specifications for construction of the Tabernacle, the Israelites’ first project after having received the law on Mt. Sinai.  

Should we care about the minutiae of how the Tabernacle was built?   Our sages certainly thought so – and not just because they were interested in ancient Israelite architecture!  From the Torah’s detailed description, they found guidance for conducting their own lives.  So can we.

Here’s an example.  Referring to construction of the altar, Exodus 27:2 states:

 וְעָשִׂיתָ קַרְנֹתָיו עַל אַרְבַּע פִּנֹּתָיו מִמֶּנּוּ תִּהְיֶין ָ קַרְנֹתָיו וְצִפִּיתָ אֹתוֹ נְחֹשֶׁת:
“Make its horns on the four corners, the horns to be of one piece with it; and overlay it with bronze.”  (Some translate נְחֹשֶׁת  as “copper” or “brass.”)

Why would the horns on the corners of the altar be overlaid with bronze?   

Centuries after the Tabernacle was constructed (or, at least, long after the account of its construction was written down), the prophet Isaiah said of the Jewish people:

מִדַּעְתִּי כִּי קָשֶׁה אָתָּה וְגִיד בַּרְזֶל עָרְפֶּךָ וּמִצְחֲךָ נְחוּשָׁה:
“… I know how stubborn you are. Your neck is like an iron sinew and your forehead bronze.”  (48:4) 

From this Biblical reference, the famous commentator Rashi concluded that the bronze overlay on the altar’s horns was to atone for our insolence.   

For the past 2,000 years since the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., we have been unable to make atonement for our notorious chutzpah through altar sacrifices.   But this hardly means that we no longer need to atone for our chutzpah!   So, it’s not surprising that when prayer replaced animal sacrifice as the main way to draw closer to G-d, our traditional liturgy included a daily prayer that references our stiff-necked character.  

As part of the morning service, Jews praying the traditional liturgy ask:       

 יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ, יְיָ אֱלֹהַי וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתַי, שֶׁתַּצִּילֵנִי הַיּוֹם וּבְכָל יוֹם מֵעַזֵּי פָנִים וּמֵעַזּוּת פָּנִים
“May it be Your will, Adonai My G-d and my ancestors’ G-d, that You deliver me today and every day from impudence and insolence…” 

How dangerous does our tradition regard chutzpah (arrogance, impudence, insolence) to be?  According to “Ethics of the Sages,” Pirkei Avot 5:24, “Arrogance leads to Gehinnom (“Hell”), humility to the Garden of Eden.”  

We need not interpret “Hell” as a physical place.  Metaphorically, comments Rabbi Rami Shapiro, “Arrogance masks fear, and fear is hell.  Humility is the face that needs no mask, and this itself is heaven.”    
So, arrogance means living in a kind of hellish state of false bravado to mask our fears and insecurities. Humility permits us to live honestly and without fear that others will discover who we “really” are.   Since we all are arrogant or insolent at times, and are tempted to be at others, we all need to “atone” and to seek self-improvement for our own benefit as well as that of our family, friends, co-workers, and others.     
As this small but important example suggests, we don’t study Torah primarily to learn what G-d required of our ancient ancestors.  We study it to discover what G-d wants and expects of us to become the people we want to be, and can be.  

May we all have the humility and discipline to learn these lessons!

Shabbat shalom. 

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