ARE YOU STIFF NECKED?
Is being stubborn a good quality or a bad quality?
In this week’s parasha, G-d says to Moses that he is going to punish the Jewish nation after they had sinned with the golden calf, VeHinei Am Keshei Oref Hu, “behold this is a stiff-necked people.” (Shemot 32:9)
Yet, when Moses pleads with G-d to forgive them, one of the arguments he uses is: “this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our sins and errors…” (Shemot 34:9)
The same phrase, Am Keshei Oref, a stiff-necked or stubborn people is used both as an indictment and as a defence of the Jewish nation.
How can it be both at the same time?
A number of years ago, I heard the late Rabbi Lord Jakobovits give an answer to this question in the name of his father.
A stiff neck doesn’t turn easily. G-d was criticising the people of Israel for not turning away from the path of idolatry, even though they had experienced so many miracles. They had witnessed the ten plagues in Egypt. They had crossed through the Red Sea on dry land. They had stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard G-d address them directly in the Ten Commandments. Despite all this, they still worshipped the golden calf. How could they be so obstinate! If they were unable to shake off the mind-set of Egypt, they did not deserve the destiny of being G-d’s people.
In his defence, Moses argues that it is precisely this quality that marks them out for being G-d’s nation. Once they have absorbed G-d’s message, they will never abandon it. Their tenacity will be a guarantee for their survival. Indeed, so it has been the case. Despite persecutions of two thousand years, the Jews have stuck to their mission. Indeed, we often bounced back with greater creativity and energy than before. Following the destruction of the Temple, Babylonian Jewry flourished and produced the Talmud. Following the Crusades, French Jewry produced the works of the Tosaphists on the Talmud. Following the expulsion from Spain the remarkable explosion of Jewish mysticism in Safed occurred. And, in living memory, the State of Israel emerged out of the ashes of the Holocaust.
What started as our greatest failing, has led to our greatest strength. May we continue that resilience in the challenges of our own times.