Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Blessing of a Stiff Neck

[This is my article from this week's edition of Toronto Torah; sorry, no time to write something fresh for the blog these days. Five shiurim to give today. It's not my best writing, but it's an idea I love.]

Am k'sheh oref, the Divine description of Jews as a "stiff-necked people", was not originally intended as a compliment. It certainly was not a prescription, either! Rather, it was a statement of Divine frustration, kaviyachol, an epithet used by G-d three times over in the wake of the Golden Calf to justify His decision to separate from the Jewish people:

"They are a stiff-necked people; leave me alone and I will rage against them and destroy them” (Shemot 32:9-10).
"I will not ascend among you, for you are a stiff-necked people and I might consume you en route” (Shemot 33:3).
"You are a stiff-necked people; in a moment I will ascend among you and destroy you” (Shemot 33:5).

Nonetheless, the sages of the Talmud saw great value and Divine purpose in our stubborn strength. They described three brazen entities – Jews among humanity, dogs among animals, and roosters among birds - and they said of this brazen character, "Had the Jews not received the Torah, no nation could have stood before them." (Beitzah 25b; see also Maharsha there) Brash chutzpah can undermine our internal spiritual life, and in commerce among humanity it brands us as uniquely difficult, but it has been key in our Torah commitment and instrumental in our survival. No matter how hard we are hit, no matter how many ways we are hit, we keep moving forward.

A stiff neck has been the story of the Jew from the start. From the wilderness Jew who heard a Divine death sentence and yet marched forward to Canaan, to the Zevulunite who was vassal to the Canaanites and yet rallied to the call of Devorah and Barak, to the Aragonese Jew who was forced to sit through Christian sermons but raised his children to perform mitzvot, and so on through the centuries to our own day, Jewish history has not a trail of tears but a monument to courage. A frustrated Martin Luther wrote, "But the Jews are so hardened that they listen to nothing; though overcome by testimonies they yield not an inch” (Table Talk, Hazlet translation). He meant this as an insult, but we wear it as a badge far more native to our identity than the yellow stars and red hats forced upon us by Muslim and Christian governments from the ninth century CE forward.

This week we read the tochachah, a warning of horrific punishments which may befall the Jewish nation, should they depart from the service of G-d. Over the centuries, we have had many opportunities to compare our suffering to these Mosaic predictions. Whether the massacre of Jews by Roman forces two thousand years ago, the slaughter by Mohammed's armies at Khaibar in the seventh century, the pillaging of Jewish communities during the Crusades, the numerous expulsions from European lands in the Middle Ages, the Chmielnicki Massacres of 1648-1649, or the horrors of the Holocaust, we have endured not only the explicit tochachah, but also every inconceivable manifestation of its ultimate curse: "Gd will also bring upon you every ailment and every blow which is not recorded in this scroll of the Torah." As Prime Minister Begin noted to President Carter, in the Holocaust we were not merely decimated, we were tertiated– and we suffered such high ratios of destruction multiple times in our history.

Nonetheless, G-d designed the Jew with a boldness which cannot be cowed. It is a strength tailored to the demands of the Torah, to the high standards of personal conduct and spiritual achievement set by Avraham and Sarah. It is a brashness which makes us dangerous, but which also makes us capable of great heights. This is the double-edged sword of our stiff neck.

As we prepare to approach our Creator on the Day of Judgment, we would do well to look at our own indomitable streak and decide how best to harness that strength. Our brash chutzpah is meant not to sow discord among ourselves and undermine our service of G-d, but to defend against descent and to fuel our rise. Elul is the time to investigate the way we deploy our stiff neck, and correct our course as needed.

The tochachah appears twice in the Torah, once in Parshat Bechukotai and once in this week's reading of Ki Tavo. In the former it ends positively, with an invocation of G-d's covenant with our ancestors. The second edition seems to end depressingly differently, though, with a prediction that we will be sold as slaves and "ein koneh", "there will be no buyer." However, Rav Betzalel Zolty saw in this ending an upbeat note. He contended that the clause should be read, "there can be no buyer." A Jew, even imprisoned and enslaved, always retains his freedom. (Hillel Goldberg, Tradition 38:2) May this ever be so.