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On the Look-Out

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s Torah Beloved: Reflections on the Love of Torah and the Celebration of the Holiday of Matan Torah, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishers 

On the Look-Out*

Two mountains loom large in the history of our people and the traditions of our faith. One is Mount Sinai, from which Moses came down with the Ten Commandments. The other is Mount Moriah which Abraham ascended in order to bind his son Isaac and offer him up as a sacrifice until God bade him stop at the last moment. Both these mountains are prominent in the history of the civilized world. And yet one wonders at the difference between them. One wonders, why, when it came to building the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple, it was Mount Moriah which was so honored and which became sacred in Jewish law and life, whereas Mount Sinai retains only historic significance but is of no importance religiously. Why is it that Mount Moriah has become the geographic center of Judaism, the place to which we turn in our prayers, and Mount Sinai is just another little hill in the great barrenness called Sinai Desert?

In the answer to that question lies a whole philosophy, the essence of the Jewish approach to God and the kernel of the Torah world-view. The answer, in fact, can be expressed in a parallel study of two historic personalities whose names are associated with these mountains. They are Moses and Abraham. The name of Moses is inextricably bound up with Sinai, and Abraham with Moriah.

Moses, of course, is the prophet par excellence of Judaism. He is the lawgiver and the man whom God chose to redeem Israel from Egypt. He reached the highest rung any man can ever hope to reach. But the early history of Moses is one of ease and facility. There are struggles, but not great struggles. There are difficulties, but no tormenting ones. He was a man who was chosen to lead and to prophecy, and his very birth was accompanied by signs of greatness. He was tending his flock in the land of Midian one fine day when he heard a voice call out of a bush, which burnt but was not consumed. It was the voice of God summoning him to his great role in history. It happened so suddenly, so quickly. It seemed that he just “had it in him.” And when, years later, he assembled his people about the mountain called Sinai, they too seemed just “naturals” for the word of God. There is even a tradition that they slept late that historic day and had to be awakened to hear the Ten Commandments issued by the divine voice. With folded arms they stayed at the foot of the mountain, while the Torah was given to them. That is the character of Sinai – a passive awaiting of God’s word. Man waits while God seeks him out.

Abraham represents the exact reverse. He was a precocious tot of three – or, according to Maimonides, a man of 43 – when he first conceived of the idea of one God. God did not reveal Himself to Abraham. But Abraham, having come to the conclusion that there must be such a personal transcendent God, began to look for God. He spent the better part of his life trying to reach him. He braved the ridicule and the mockery of his idolatrous society because of his belief in and search for an invisible God. Not once in many years did God make himself available to the searching patriarch. Only after many heart-breaking decades did the word of God come to Abraham: lekh lekha. . . . and then he was 75 years old! It was a successful and vindicating venture, this search for God, but only because it was a search – difficult, hard, often frustrating.

But if this long search was a hard one, how much more so Abraham’s trek up Mt. Moriah. Here he was, in his old age, a father of one son born to him in his late years. And now God had called upon him to sacrifice this son atop the mountain. His religious nature responded affirmatively at once. His humanitarian side rebelled. His only real son, the one and only to his old mother. And yet, torn by this inner conflict, Abraham climbed the mountain, every step filled with pain and foreboding with a fire raging in his soul. He climbed up to God, and he finally reached the summit – he was going to follow the Godly voice! And he did, until the angel ordered him to desist, and told him that he had passed the test. That is the character of Moriah – a powerful looking for God, a dynamic active search by man for God.

That is what accounts for the holiness of Moriah and the religious insignificance of Sinai. Holiness is not a generous gift bestowed by God on prima-donna souls. It is wrested from God by the sweat of the brow and the mighty wrangling of the heart. A Temple is not built by religious wall-flowers. It is sanctified by searchers, by men always on the look-out for God. That is why Mount Moriah is crowned by the Holy Temple, whereas Sinai has nothing Jewish associated with it; on the contrary, on  its summit today there is a Christian monastery.

Those who pray carefully might sometimes wonder: we often refer to God as Elokei Avraham, never as Elokei Moshe. Why? Because it was Abraham, not Moses, who searched the harder. And Elokei Avraham means the God of Abraham in the possessive sense, that Abraham actually “owns” a part of God. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik offers an interesting halakhic explanation. The halakha discusses the case of one who finds an object in the street, an object of value but which has no identifying marks. In such case, the law is “finders keepers.” But what is the legal reason for the transfer of the property from the previous owner to the finder? The reason, according to the Talmud, is ye’ush baalim, the fact that the previous owners (knowing that it bears no identifying marks) renounce ownership because they despair of its return. In the same way, so to speak, did Abraham become possessive of God. There was no one who had any prior claim on God. Men had despaired of reaching Him. There was ye’ush baalim. But Abraham went on the lookout. He searched for this Divine metzia, and he found Him; hence, Elokei Avraham, the God of Abraham. Abraham looked for God, and so God was Abraham’s. But God was the one who looked for Moses and found him, and so he is known as Moshe eved Hashem, Moses the servant of God (Deuteronomy 34:5). Moses was found by God and hence belongs to God.

It was only long after Sinai, after the Tablets there delivered were broken, that Moses changed his approach to God, that he announced “har’eni na et kevodekha” (Exodus 33:18), God, I am out to discover Your glory. It was only then that Moses rose to his eminent position in the history of humanity.

It is the same in religion as in all life, except more so. You never get something for nothing. In Torah it is even deeper: you must work much harder, but the returns are much greater. Those who have not experienced true simḥa shel mitzva, the ecstatic joy of spiritual achievement, have not lived.

I sometimes wonder at some of our Jews. I wish they would take their business shrewdness into the synagogue proper, not only to board meetings. Which businessman would trust an agent who tries to sell him stock that supposedly requires very little investment, involves no risk and gives tremendous windfall profits, without a thorough examination? And yet, these same people, so circumspect in finances, come into the synagogue and expect to invest three or visits a year, no risks of spiritual creativity and hardship, and expect God to jump every time they snap their fingers, expect to be “inspired.” There is only one difference. In business, such speculative fly-by-night investment can cost you your shirt. In religion, you can lose your soul. Torah does indeed offer terrific spiritual profits, but not without heavy capital investment – investment of your time and energy and faith and money and prestige. It requires being constantly on the look-out for God, being a Mount Moriah Jew, not a Sinai Jew.

I wish people would not come into this synagogue to “be inspired” as one goes to a show to be entertained or to a steam-room to be massaged. This is neither a theatre nor a service agency. The rabbi is not an actor, nor does he aspire to be a masseur. This is a workshop, a workshop of the human soul where you are both the artisan and the vessel, where God is both the boss who demands and the customer who must be satisfied, and where the rabbi is just another poor, hard laborer who merely seeks to give some friendly advice. No one can find God without looking for Him, and it is just that the synagogue is the best place to look.

It is told of the great Hasidic teacher, Reb Baruch of Meziboz that his grandchild once came crying to him, and complained that he had been playing hide-and-seek with friends, and that he was hiding but his friend did not come to look for him. “Ahh,” exclaimed the Rabbi, “but God has the same complaint. No one comes to look for Him.”

If we religious Jews had taken that to heart fifty and sixty years ago in greater numbers and with more enthusiasm, the State of Israel today might have more genuine Jewishness in it, in place of the offensive secularism which sometimes tears at the heart. If only we had known then that Messiah would not come looking for us if we remained with folded arms. Messiah comes only when he is sought out, when he is looked for. Only then does one find atḥalta degeula. The Hebrew song, Yerushalayim, has one beautiful refrain: me’al pisgat har hatzofim shalom lakh Yerushlayim, from the summit of Mount Tzofim, peace unto you, O Jerusalem. Those who know Hebrew know that “tzofim” comes from the word which means to look, to search out. Only when Jews will begin to look for Jerusalem with love and devotion, when they will put their lives into the striving for the City of Beauty will peace come unto Jerusalem.

If parents would understand this difference between Moriah and Sinai, between Abraham and the early career of Moses, they would not be satisfied with the pitifully little they give their children. Parents who are happy with a three-day-a-week education for their children are not providing them with the equipment with which to undertake the long and tough search for meaningfulness and holiness in life. Those who give their children a two-hour-a-week fling in things Jewish are not only not providing them, but I dare say are blindfolding their own children; if one of these ever finds meaningfulness it is sheer luck. Those parents who give their children full, maximum education, those who give them – let us not be afraid to say it openly – a good day-school education if it is available, they are the ones who help their children. That kind of teaching means providing children with spiritual binoculars in the search for God.

“And from there shall you seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him, if you will search after Him with all your heart and with all your soul. In your distress, when all these things come upon you” (Deuteronomy 4:29–30), when man is troubled by the sheer emptiness of his life, when he is worried and pained, when he feels caught in a vise and tossed about recklessly in the tempests of life, when in distress, then God calls out, seek God, look for Him, and you will most certainly find Him. “For the Lord your God is a merciful God; He will not fail you, not destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers which He swore unto them” (Deuteronomy 4:31).

*May 28, 1955

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Parshat Teruma: Chutzpah – A Religious Analysis

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Exodus, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern

Chutzpah – A Religious Analysis*

Our tradition paints a very gloomy picture of the frightening  and catastrophic days preceding the coming of the Messiah. In addition to all the world upheavals and bloodshed and immorality expected in the ikveta deMeshiĥa, in the era preceding Mashiaĥ, our Rabbis (Sota 49b) predicted that “chutzpah yasgei,” that chutzpah will abound, that there will be an unnatural increase of brazenness and effrontery and arrogance. And one may well wonder if the excessive haughtiness and obnoxious chutzpah we find so common in our world today is not the very thing our Sages were talking about. Perhaps if indeed chutzpah is to herald the coming of the Messiah, then the Golden Age cannot be far off.

What is chutzpah? It is a universal quality, but a uniquely Jewish word. It is essentially untranslatable. You might say: boldness, effrontery, arrogance. It is all these things but more too. Chutzpah, a great sage of the Talmud once said (Sanhedrin 105a), is “malkhuta beli taga,” “kingship without a crown”; it is authoritativeness without authority, dominion without dignity, ruling without right, arrogance without warrant, dogmatic opinionation without basis – in short, a man acting the part of a king when he has never been entitled to the crown, “malkhuta beli taga.”

Chutzpah is, of course, an unpleasant characteristic. When we speak of a man as a chutzpahnik we pass an unfavorable judgment upon him. And yet chutzpah has a positive side too. Our Rabbis meant to praise Israel when they attributed to it the greatest amount of chutzpah from amongst all nations. There are times that chutzpah makes for survival, times that it expresses a profound loyalty to values which transcend ordinary politeness and courtesy, and even life itself. The chutzpah of the Jew in refusing to settle down and assimilate, his insistence that Torah must survive at all costs and in all environments, his persistence in the face of great odds that he is a member of God’s chosen people – that is a constructive and desirable chutzpah.

How then are we to understand chutzpah, and discriminate between its legitimate and illegitimate uses, between its positively offensive aspect and that quality which is not necessarily  objectionable?

The answer is that in Hebrew we have two terms that correspond to the two component parts of effrontery or chutzpah, and each one must be treated differently for they mean different things. These two are called azut metzaĥ and azut panim, being strong-headed and being bold-faced.

Azut metzaĥ literally means “strength of the forehead” or headstrongness. This is an intellectual or ideological chutzpah, an effrontery of the mind. It means that I am totally convinced of the rightness of my opinion and that I will therefore not yield one inch to your argument no matter what you do or say. It is a most irritating quality – but it is restricted to the realm of ideas, and involves no sneering or mocking or scoffing. It can be good or bad. When a young man is headstrong and refuses to yield to the pressure of his friends who see nothing wrong with immorality and looseness as long as everyone else is doing it – that is azut metzaĥ; an annoying and frustrating headstrongness, but a wonderful and admirable kind of chutzpah. But when a man sees God’s miracles and goodness before his very eyes and refuses, unreasonably, to be convinced that “Hashem hu haElohim” – that is the wrong kind of azut metzaĥ, a negative and sinful headstrongness.

Azut panim, however, is always and forever a detestable and obnoxious feature. Literally it means “strength of face” – bold- facedness or brazen-facedness. This is more than ideological stubbornness. It involves more than metzaĥ, the head or mind. It is azut panim, the boldness of the whole face, the effrontery of the whole personality – the supercilious glance of the eye, the  haughty sniff of the nose, the sneer of the lips, the vulgarity of the mouth, the closing of one ear to all reason and the opening of the other to all malicious tale-bearing. That is azut panim – the boldness of the face, the vulgarity and detestable arrogance of the warped personality. This azut panim is what makes chutzpah so chutzpahdik.

And that is why our Rabbis said, on the one hand, that “im ra’ita kohen ba’azut metzaĥ, al teharher aĥarav(Kiddushin 70b) – azut metzaĥ in a kohen should not shock you. For a religious leader, be he a kohen or rabbi or scholar, must be a source of ideological strength and firmness which may at times be irritating towards others. But this is the azut metzaĥ aspect of chutzpah, and it is therefore above suspicion. On the other hand, azut panim deserves no such consideration. “Azut panim nikra rasha” (Numbers Rabba 18:12) – it is a sign of wickedness. Headstrongness is not always to be condemned, while bold-facedness is always an evil.

That is why on Yom Kippur we include in the list of sins for confession, “al ĥeit sheĥatanu lefanekha be’azut metzaĥ.” To be headstrong against God and Torah is a sin, for which we apologize and hope to be excused. But in the preface to that very viduy, we say “ein anu azei panim…” We may be gossips and thieves and liars and azut metzaĥ; but God, azut panim – that we never are, for we know that that is unforgiveable. Hold us guilty for anything, God, but not for azut panim.

Until now, we have defined the two types of chutzpah, and attempted to illustrate them and clarify their differences. Now let us proceed to a further analysis of this objectionable aspect of chutzpah called azut panim. Why should Judaism place so much weight on it? Why, in the very confession of the greatest sins do we deny that we are guilty of this one fault? Why does our great tradition react so violently to this one specific character flaw?

The deeper understanding of this quality of azut panim may be found not in the great ethical works of our sacred literature, but in the Halakhah. The Talmud (Ketuvot 18a) discusses the prosaic and mundane problem of modeh bemiktzat: Reuben appears before a court and demands that Simon pay him back the $100 he lent him. Simon concedes in part – he is modeh bemiktzat, he says: yes, I owe him money, but only $60. What is the decision of the Halakha? The $60 to which Simon admitted must, of course, be returned to Reuben. But the other $40, while it cannot be collected without witnesses, nevertheless requires Simon to take a solemn oath before Bet Din. Simon must go through the extremely serious procedure of denying loan of the extra $40 under oath. Why is this so? Why do we not say that if Simon were a liar that he would deny the entire $100, and that therefore if he admitted to $60, to miktzat, that he must be telling the truth? Here the great Rabba explains: Because “ein adam me’iz panav bifnei ba’al ĥovo,” no man will ordinarily be that bold-faced, that much of an azut panim, that he will deny the entire amount to the face of the creditor. That is why he feels forced to admit to the $60.

Whatever the legal ramifications of that statement, and whether or not we are able to follow the short explanation that I have just given, this fact emerges clearly: no ordinary human being will ordinarily act with azut panim against one to whom he is indebted. If I feel that someone has done me a great favor, if I feel beholden to him, then I will never exercise azut panim towards him. This is the Halakha’s psychological principle with regard to azut panim. One who feels beholden and indebted will hold his peace and act respectfully. Otherwise, he is guilty of the most brazen, arrogant, inhuman, and detestable kind of azut panimchutzpah. There can be no worse.

What we learn from the Halakha, therefore, is that a man who acts brazenly, with azut panim, towards his fellow men, he who is not only headstrong but vulgar and unreasonable and arrogant and mocking towards all they are and stand for – such a man acts that way because he does not recognize a power to whom he is indebted; such azut panim can be explained only as a feeling of complete independence, of being a self-made man. When a man recognizes the fact that there is no such thing as complete independence, that his clothing comes to him by grace of God, that his food and his health and his money and his family are all temporary gifts granted to him by God, and that he is therefore indebted to God for his very existence, that God is his ba’al ĥov, then that person will never develop azut panim of any kind in any situation. It is only when a man has deluded himself as to his own powers and greatness and self-sufficiency and forgotten his essential weakness and inadequacy and helplessness, when he has forgotten that he owes many a debt to God, that he becomes an az panim. That is why Judaism is so concerned with the quality of azut panim. It is because the az panim rejects God offhandedly. Bold-facedness is rebellion against the Lord. Brazenness against anyone is automatically a denial of all religion. “Haughtiness against men,” wrote the great Ramban in his letter to his son, “is rebellion against God.” Certainly, for “ein adam me’iz panav bifnei baal ĥovo” – to accept God is to be indebted to Him; and to be indebted and to know it is to make azut panim impossible.

Where can we find the cure for azut panim? Surely in the synagogue, if no place else. The mikdash me’at, the miniature sanctuary, not only should be a place where azut panim is never practiced, but should be the place where people learn to rid themselves of this scourge. In today’s sidra we read of the construction of the very first synagogue – the Mishkan, or Tabernacle. And if you read carefully the measurements the Torah prescribes for the holiest part of the Mishkan, the aron, you will notice that in all three dimensions the measurements are not full units, they are not integers or complete numbers. Instead they are partial numbers: the length is two and a half cubits; the width one and a half cubits, and the height is one and a half again. Why so? Because, answers the saintly Rabbi Nathan Adler, the teacher of the famed Ĥatam Sofer, the Torah wanted to teach the people of the aron, the people of the synagogue, that they must never consider themselves complete – they are always to believe themselves only half-done. Their pride must be broken in half. They are never to imagine themselves complete and sufficient and independent. And people who remember that they are only ĥeitzi, only half of what they should be, people who recognize their great indebtedness to the Lord of all creation, such people will never be guilty of azut panim, for such vile chutzpah comes about only when one thinks he is complete in and of and to himself.

We who are close to the aron hakodesh, to whom the synagogue is meaningful not only as another organization but as the place of Torah and the sponsors of the study of Torah, we must ever remember the debt we owe God Almighty, and thus forever remain free of the ineradicable taint of azut panim. If we are to use chutzpah, then let us make the proper use of azut metzaĥ, for the greater glory of God and Torah. But let us never be guilty of azut panim, of the sin of spiritual vulgarity for which our tradition did not even provide an al ĥet on Yom Kippur. Let us always say “ein anu azei panim,” say what You will God, You cannot accuse us of that crime.

May our association with our beloved synagogue bring us that moral sensitivity and nobility of character, which, based on our indebtedness to God for our very lives, will cause us to become ambassadors of God to an unreconstructed world, bringing the light of Torah to all Israel and all the world, so that, in a manner of speaking, God will say to us: My children, now I am indebted to you.


*February 2, 1957