Ki Tisa: A Stiff-Necked People

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Stiff Necked
11 Mar 2009

Over the years, the Jews have been privileged to receive many appellations. Among the more famous (and positive) are Chosen People, People of the Book, Eternal People, Light unto the Nations [am hanivchar, am hasefer, am hanetzach, or lagoyim, respectively]. This week’s parsha finds our people receiving yet another tag – one that for good reason evokes mixed feelings, yet in whose depth may lie the secret of our eternity.

The source of the appellation? Hashem himself – who relates the following to Moshe in the terrible Golden Calf aftermath [Shemot, 32:9]:

I have seen [observed] this people, and behold they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave Me alone and My wrath will blaze against them and destroy them. I will then make you into a great nation.

There it is: Am keshei oref – a stiff-necked people. You might have heard of the term – one that evokes a particular uncomplimentary image, simply explained by Rashi:

So-called because they turn their stiff necks towards those who reprimand them and refuse to listen.

A picture of a passive aggressive nation emerges, one that refuses to respond to reprimand while perhaps even ignoring the essential rebuke.

One chapter later, Hashem informs Moshe that He will be now be sending a proxy angel to watch over Bnei Yisrael [instead of His direct stewardship]. In explaining why, Hashem invokes this notion twice again: [Shemot, 33:3,5]

I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites.. [You will then] enter a land flowing with milk and honey… for I will not go up among you, for you are a stiff-necked people and I may destroy you along the way.”… “Say to the B’nei Yisrael, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. Were I to go up among you… I would destroy you.

In sum, one can reasonably assume that keshei oref is not the thing to be, the phrase connoting a noxious combination of impudence mixed with more than a dash of stubbornness.

Here’s the problem: In defending Am Yisrael, Moshe uses the very same keshei oref notion as the essential rationale for our salvation [Shemot, 34:9]

Moshe hastened, bowed to the ground… and said, “If I have found favor in Your eyes my Master, let my Master go among us [ki am keshei oref hu] because it is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sins, and take us as Your own possession.”

Keshei Oref as a reason for mercy does not sound like a winning argument (1). It almost seems that Moshe employs keshei oref as a desired state.

Ibn Ezra presents two possible explanations of the text. First, he presents the opinion of Rav Mereinos who redefines the word ki:

1. … the phrase “ki it is a stiff necked people” should be rendered as even though it is a stiff necked people [for the word ki can also mean even though] as we find …

Opting with the more standard usage of the word ki as a causative, Ibn Ezra offers a different approach

2. “Because we are stiff necked” – because I admit that we have sinned … I admit that it is a stiff necked people and therefore you shall forgive

Ibn Ezra’s second notion runs like this: Hashem, we don’t attempt to redefine truth in light of our behavior, nor do we make a theology of our weaknesses – a tendency from which frail man often suffers (2). In classic Berditchever Rebbe style, Moshe turns to Hashem and says – but at least we are honest.

A third way, an amalgam of Ramban, Zohar, Midrash and basic human observation moves me.

In my many dealings with cell phone providers, credit card companies and the airlines, I invariably find myself speaking to the manager. When speaking to other Jews, they seem to have similar experiences. Therefore, I am convinced that Jews need to speak to the manager. Moshe turns to God and says: Hashem – Your people do not want an agent. We want the Divine Manager. Why? The words of the Zohar Chadash confound: [Lech Lecha 41b]

“For it is a stiff necked people and You shall forgive” – For You are forgiving and we are stiff-necked (and therefore) You shall forgive .. The Jews are obstinate and wearying and when they sin, the angel can only do judgment and not forgiveness , but You are merciful and gracious

The message seems like this. A malach is constricted; he has no leeway and must punish us! You Hashem understand us in great depth and can find in our being keshei oref the very building blocks of forgiveness. How so?

Ramban’s beautiful words open the door:

.. and while in the time of anger it would have been better to send an angel because they are stiff necked .. in the time of ratzon [favor], the Shechina is better because they are stiff necked, for He will have more mercy on his servants (And Hashem assented to Moshe’s request.)

Remarkably, after Bnei Yisrael does its teshuva, the stiff necked nature of the Jewish people will coax Divine mercy. Ramban does not reveal the metaphysics of that equation. A beautiful Midrash however does [Shemot Rabah, 42:9]

and, behold, it is a stiff necked people- R. Jakim said: Three are the undaunted: among beasts, it is the dog; among birds, it is the cock; and among the nations it is Israel. R. Isaac b. Redifa said in the name of R. Ammi: You think that this is said disparagingly, but it is really in their praise. R. Abin said: To this very day Israelites in the Diaspora are called the stiff necked people.

Keshei oref per se is a trait, not a pejorative. By definition, a trait is willy nilly, neither here nor there. The key with any trait is its manner of implementation. A classic Kotzker story drives home the point:

The Kotzker once taught that every emotion/thought has value. Rebbe, of what value is heresy or doubt? – a cynical chassid asked. The Kotzker thought for a moment and responded: When a beggar knocks on your door – don’t believe that der abishter vett helfen – that God shall provide. Take out your wallet and give him money

Our stiff necked-ness has served us well; a key ingredient in what no less divergent personalities than Rav Yaakov Emden and Mark Twain (3) both pointed out as one of the great enigmas and miracles of human civilization: the immortality of the Jew. Does anyone really doubt that by all standards of natural history, we ought to have been a relic of the past, an academic fascination for aspiring PhDs?

Yet when I see my dear 88 year old friend and survivor of the camps learning a blatt gemara with a USC film school student who never opened up the Talmud – it is clear that our keshei oref-ness has been the requisite God-given attribute to allow us to fulfill the Divine promise of our eternity. May it be God’s will that we stubbornly cling en masse to our heritage until the whole world is filled with the recognition of Hashem and His Torah – speedily in our days!

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander

1. At first blush, Moshe’s argument sounds a bit like this: A mother chides her child for not cleaning up his (daughters have a better shot of cleaning up) room for the 200th time. She’s had it – invoking his laziness as the reason why he lost that trip. The son (a nascent lawyer) turns around to his mother and argues: “Precisely because of my laziness should you seek to inspire me by awarding me this trip”.

2. A very wise Rabbi once said that our generation is often guilty of creating new mitzvot [ this person is so evil, it is a mitzvah to speak lashon hara about him] and new aveirot [these fellows are so lazy, it is forbidden to give them tzedakah].

3. “All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.