Af Tsu Lokhes: Do It In Spite Of

Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Congregation Neve Shalom. 

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

The parashah begins with the clue-word, va-et-cha-nan — and I entreated or I implored or I prayed — who implored? Moses implored God at that time, saying such and such.

I perched on the text, just there, with the first word, because it’s about Moses, it’s about why he is not to enter the Land, as he asks clearly two verses on (Deuteronomy 3:25): Let me now cross and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan. 

Rashi, too, pauses here on the first word of the parashah. Because it’s nuanced, and because the Torah does not describe in a literal way internal states, it generally gives us action. We have to infer intention, attitude. And the intention in Moses’ words is important here: What is his attitude? He wants to go into the Land, that much is clear, but what is his tone?

Is it a request of entitlement — hey — let me into that Land because I deserve it. I think most of the commentators feel that he does deserve it. The problem in the text is: Why doesn’t Moses merit entering the Land? 

Moses keeps asking, but what kind of asking? How does he feel — is he frustrated, is he angry, is he entitled, is he embittered, does he feel like a big shot who has been short-changed, is he humble, is he accepting, is he angry — how does he feel? 

ADVERTISEMENT
MERS Goodwill ad


Our commentators want to know if it’s the language of humility or the language of entitlement, this first word, va-et-cha-nan. What’s the attitude in that opening word?

Attitude is everything and hard to read off the page, easy to hear when spoken. I know what it feels like to search for an attitude. Sometimes I find myself proposing something that is not automatically embraced by those I am proposing it to; when I do, I always look for what I call the af tsu lokhes attitude.

There’s a difference between an af tsu lokhes attitude and the davka attitude, two terms from two of our languages that have some similarity. Af tsu lokhes is from the Yiddish, it’s a nuanced notion. New to learning Hebrew students love the term davka; it describes an attitude or a posture that we don’t have concise English for, so it’s overused. Davka is a just-because concept; she’s always late for our meetings but davka today when I was running late, she was right on time. It has a little irony attached to it, but only a little.

I prefer af tsu lokhes, a Yiddish term that comes from a Hebrew root that denotes anger — but it’s not anger. The term means moving ahead into something in spite of, so it has an attitude attached to it (sure this is hard, but af tsu lokhes I’m going to do it anyway). It has an in-your-face-ness that davka lacks. I am partial to that in-your-face attitude, a remnant of a colorful past.

The expression af tsu lokhes comes from the infinitive of the hiphil for the root khaf-ayin-samech in Hebrew, to make angry. Davka is interesting and useful but has no anger, no edge to it. 

I was born in Detroit where everyone has an af tsu lokhes attitude. When I was first starting out in St. Louis, I wanted a space for a meeting about alcoholism and drug addiction among Jews. We’re trying a similar strategy now with mental illness in our community. Then Rose Mass and myself needed a room to begin speaking about such problems in our community, advertise in the papers, break the stigma. We didn’t get a lot of help in those days. I went to a community leader in charge of things, he was an af tsu lokhes person. He was an original. Sure, this is difficult, he said, everybody thinks Jews don’t behave this way — let’s do it! Af tsu lokhes! 

He gave us a room and once a month Rose and I would give a talk. That was in 1981. I won’t mention the community leader’s name because I don’t want to shame all the decision-istas who came after him who lack the af tsu lokhes attitude, though since the person I referred to as an original has passed I don’t want to embarrass his successors. Or maybe, davka, I do.