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Parshat Ki Tisa: Stubbornness

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman 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


It was Rabbi Simcha Zissel, one of the giants of the Lithuanian Mussar movement, who pointed out an unusual aspect of God’s reaction to the worship of the Golden Calf by the Israelites. The divine wrath was kindled at the people of Israel not for idolatry, not for faithlessness, but because “hinei am keshei oref hu,” “because it is a stiff-necked people.” Evidently stubbornness is, in God’s scheme, more deserving of anger than idolatry. The Torah regards an obstinate character as more evil than a pagan soul. The calamities that followed the Golden Calf were due more to bad character than bad theology.

Certainly this is a valid point. The man with the stubborn streak has a rigid will. His mind is frozen, and so he cannot learn. His soul suffers from a rigor mortis which prevents him from communing with the Source of all life. Brazenness, ignorance, a closed mind, and a dead spirit – these are the prices of obstinacy and the casualties of stubbornness. A stubborn people will persist in its evil ways and never learn the ways of God. A stiff-necked people cannot raise its head above the Golden Calf.

And yet the matter cannot be dismissed so simply. A blanket condemnation of stubbornness does not fit in with the complicated facts of today’s sidra. For while, on the one hand, God points to stubbornness as the root of the sin of idolatry, and while he blames obstinacy for His withdrawal from Israel (“I will not go amongst you because you are a stiff-necked people”), on the other hand, it is this very characteristic that Moses presents as a reason why God should rejoin the camp of Israel! In his second prayer of intercession, Moses says “Let God go with us because we are a stiff-necked people!” The very reason God gave for abandoning Israel is the one Moses presents for His accepting them! If stubbornness is an unconditional evil, an absolute sin, then how can Moses point to Jewish obstinacy as a virtue deserving of God’s attention?

Obviously, then, stubbornness is a virtue as well as a vice, a mitzva as well as an aveira. To be unbendingly evil is worse than idolatry; to be unbendingly Godly is the greatest virtue. What is dogged obstinacy in the service of a bad cause, is valorous constancy in the service of a good one. Stubbornness depends upon what you do with it and how you wield it. There is an immoral stubbornness that insists, despite all signs of divine faithfulness, that “halo tov lanu shuv Miztrayima,” that it is better to live like an Egyptian slave than to die free under God in the desert (Numbers :). But there is a moral stubbornness that, despite all reports to the contrary, doggedly insists with Caleb that “alo na’aleh veyarashnu otah,” we can reach the Promised Land and build it up. Our Arab cousins practice an immoral stubbornness when they refuse to face the facts of a divinely guided history and recite daily over Radio Cairo the banal nonsense about pushing the Jews into the sea. But there is a moral stubbornness which refuses to concede that Jews behind the Iron Curtain are lost, and so it waits and prepares until they start to come; a moral obstinacy that will fight tyranny on the beaches, landing grounds, fields, streets, and hills; a lofty stiff-neckedness that will not let freedom’s light darken.

Patriots in peace, assert the people’s right

With noble stubbornness resisting might.

( John Dryden, Epistle the Thirteenth)

This lovely and blessed tenacity which made the quality of “keshei oref” worthy of divine pleasure, is that which enabled the Jew to face up to the countless challenges thrust upon us by our persecutors throughout the ages. We are a stubborn, stiff-necked, obdurate people. We will not give up our national existence, our faith, our Torah, our God.

That is why we are alive to this day. That same quality that made us insensitive to the word of God and caused us to dance about a Golden Calf has been sublimated, and has made us strong, powerful people of God. That is what Moses meant in his prayer to God. The same characteristic that made them blind to you, O God, will keep them a holy nation though trial and temptation, through persecution and pogrom once they have accepted You. In every condition and under every circumstance, though ridiculed and laughed at, they will say proudly and stubbornly, “asher baĥar banu mekol ha’amim” – God has chosen us, and we must teach His word to the world. With principled obstinacy we shall bend the world toward God.

And if we need to convince ourselves further of the worthiness of the right kind of stubbornness, let us turn to the haftara where we are given the immortal picture of the prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel, challenging the priests of the idol Baal, swaying his people to him and away from Baal by the miraculous fire from heaven which consumes his sacrifice. What was Elijah’s purpose in this dramatic moment? To prove God’s existence? Is it possible or even proper to prove God by this kind of histrionics which could possibly be duplicated by a skilled magician? Not at all. What Elijah proposed in his sudden appearance out of the desert was to change the character of the people from the spiritual flabbiness of fence-sitting religiosity and wishy-washy faith back to the toughness of “am keshei oref.” Remember the challenge the prophet flung at this uncertain people, wavering ’twixt God and Baal? “Ad matay atem posĥim al shetei hase’ipim,” how long will you waiver between two opinions, how long will you keep jumping from one branch to the other like a bird that cannot decide where it wants to go? How long will you postpone the hard and tough choice: either God or Baal? The prophet was tired with the softness of the Jewish spirit of his day. He wanted to do away with the jelly-fish spirit. He longed for the “am keshei oref,” for a flint-minded, stiff-necked people whose head could not be turned by the glitter of golden idols and whose heart would not be turned to the temptations of petty pagan customs.

How interesting is the biblical idiom for stubbornness – “keshei oref,” “a stiff neck.” A man who has a stiff neck finds that his body and head must face in the same direction. In the evil, wrong kind of stubbornness, his head follows his body and his mind justifies his material cravings. In the right kind of stubbornness, his body follows his head, and he disciplines himself to follow his principles. When there is “posĥim al shetei hase’ipim,” when there is flabbiness, then head and body face different directions – the mind expresses the best of intentions, while the body indulges in the worst kind of deeds. God condemned the wrong kind of stubbornness. Elijah condemned all kinds of moral flabbiness. Moses praised the right kind of stubbornness – where the principles prevail and body must follow mind.

That this teaching of Judaism is as important today as always goes without saying. Our fight for freedom against tyranny, for Jewishness against assimilation, for the moral life against degeneracy – all these depend, in the end, on how properly stubborn we are. But today allow me to mention very briefly but one element of Jewish obstinacy that we must reaffirm urgently. We are a people who have never allowed our poor and unfortunate to become public charges. We have always taken care of our own. It is a wonderful tribute to our stiff-neckedness that we New York Jews, in keeping with this tradition of tzedaka and caring for our fellow Jews, have always supported the central, over-all agency for such purposes: The Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. The Federation cares for people in our city, through hospitals, orphanages, family and vocational guidance, summer camps, and Jewish education. It is the source of percent of Jewish sponsored care in this city. Last year, the Federation suffered a $2 million deficit. This year it faces the alarming deficit of $4 million. The Federation now faces a crisis in maintenance – it needs no less than $18 million this year just to continue its work without any expansion or improvement. We are called upon, we of the Jewish Center, to show our moral and ethical strength, to rally to the call of tzedaka, to reaffirm our insistence that we take care of our own, that no Jew ever be forced into the humiliation of the public ward. It is a peculiar feeling, and we are stubborn about it – but it is part of our moral heritage. Let us not stand accused of Elijah’s jibe “ad matayatem posĥim al shetei hase’ipim.” How long will we remain ambivalent and uncertain whether we will practice tzedaka or not? Let us brace ourselves, and support the Federation even if it hurts a bit. For we are “am keshei oref.”

The Halakha teaches us that an animal whose spine is broken is tereifa – it is not kosher. And if we are in doubt, the Halakha prescribes this interesting test: grasp the spine at its base. If it leans over at the side, that is the sign of a fracture, and the animal is a tereifa. If it stands erect, then the spine has its natural hardness and it is kosher.

If we want to be kosher Jews, Jews who are genuine and authentic heirs of the Torah tradition, we must possess strong backbones and stiff necks. We must show spine and stubbornness in the face of adversity and challenge. We must not bow before persecution; we must not bend the knee for any of the modern idols. We must stand proudly and straight upon our sacred principles. Then we shall be kosher Jews. Then we shall not have reason to fear Elijah’s taunt. Then we shall prove worthy of Moses’ prayer and God’s affirmative answer to that prayer: “yelekh na Hashem bekirbenu ki am keshei oref hu” – let God go amongst us, for we are a stiff-necked people.

*February 28, 1959