During a speech he gave at a sheva brachos, Rav Shmuel Berenbaum, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Mir Yeshiva in Brooklyn, noted that he had seen a cereal box that had on its cover a picture of an athlete eating that cereal. Rav Berenbaum related that he had three questions on the advertisement. First of all, even though the athlete was holding a bowl of that cereal, who is to say that he even likes the cereal? He may detest the cereal but is being paid to pose that way. Secondly, even if he does like the cereal, who is to say that just because he likes it, I’ll like it, too? Finally, he’s famous because he can play ball well. What does that have to do with knowing if a cereal is good or not?
Logically, his questions make a lot of sense, especially the third question. Why should anyone want to eat a cereal or, for that matter, drink certain beverages, wear certain clothes, or use certain products just because an athlete or celebrity is portrayed enjoying that food or product? But such is the way of our society, and such is the profound effect of the billion-dollar advertising industry.
The Mishnah in Avos (perek 6) lists 48 prerequisites for growth and greatness in Torah. One of those 48 is ha’makir es m’komo – one who recognizes his place. Such a person understands his role and the effect he can have on others. At the same time, he recognizes who and what he’s not, and doesn’t try to overreach his abilities or authority.
Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch explains that the word chutzpah is a contraction of the words chutz and poh – outside of here. One who has chutzpah crosses the line of appropriateness and oversteps his boundaries.
The Gemara (Sotah 49b) relates that one of the signs of the times for the generation prior to Mashiach is that there will be a proliferation of chutzpah. This manifests itself in many ways that are apparent in our time, including the way society worships celebrities, allowing them to sway public opinion.
In 2016, a football player decided that he should kneel during the singing or playing of the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality. Since then, a noted basketball player used social media to broadcast his opinions about political matters. Many celebrities followed suit, using their platforms to convey their opinions about politics.
Most recently, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company decided to weigh in (pun intended) on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, choosing to no longer sell their products in areas they deemed illegal. They were doing great with the ice cream. What do Rocky Road and Half-Baked Cookie Batter have to do with Israeli settlements?
All these examples fit Rav Hirsch’s definition of chutzpah. Why should athletes or celebrities get involved in matters beyond their area of expertise?
But such is the way of our generation, in which many don’t know their place or recognize where the lines of appropriateness lie.
Perhaps the ultimate chutzpah is when one person decides to become the spokesperson for an entire community, asserting that her grievances represent what is happening in most homes. Aside from being a slanderous misrepresentation, it is also way out of line. (It is perfect entertainment for a society that prioritizes entertainment over facts.)
The Torah teaches us how to live a life of meaning and inner expression within the guidelines of its parameters.
When young children draw, they pick up a crayon or marker and color indiscriminately all over the paper. They subsequently tell you what they drew because it’s not otherwise recognizable. But as they become older, they learn to color between the lines, creating nicer pictures that are more clearly defined.
In our own lives, when we traverse the lines of halachah, we enter the realm of chutzpah and the picture we create with our lives appears messy and unappealing.
When we live within the divinely ordained parameters of halachah, however, we create a spiritually beautiful picture.
What greater honor could there be than to paint a divinely beautiful tapestry every day of our lives.