LOOSENING THAT STIFF NECK
Rabbi Pinchas Avruch
In this week’s parsha Moshe persisted in his effort to impress upon the Children of Israel that only with trust in Hashem (G-d) and fulfillment of His ordinances will they have success in conquering the Land of Israel and settling it. He also reminded them that their success would not be due to their righteousness, as they had many national spiritual failings during their forty years in the wilderness, including the Golden Calf, the demand for water at Massah, the complaint of traveling toward Israel too quickly at Taveirah, the demand for meat at Kivros HaTa’avah, and – most detrimentally – the debacle of the spies.
A significance of the Golden Calf was that it brought the first threat to destroy the Jewish people. But Moshe’s primary concern does NOT seem to be the sin itself. “And you should know that not because of your righteousness does Hashem your G-d give you this good land to possess it, for you are a stiff necked people. Remember, do not forget, that you provoked Hashem your G-d in the wilderness, from the day you left the land of Egypt until your arrival at this place, you have been rebels against Hashem. And in Chorev (Sinai) you provoked Hashem, and Hashem became angry with you to destroy you…Hashem said to me, saying, ‘I have seen this people and behold, it is a stiff necked people. Release me and I shall destroy them and erase their name from under the heavens and I shall make you a mightier, more numerous nation than they!'” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 9:6-8,13-14)
Sforno (classic commentary on Pentateuch by Rabbi Ovadya Sforno of Rome and Bologna, Italy; 1470-1550) directly connects verses 6 and 7 with 8, making it clear that stubbornness, not the sin, was the rationale for ruin. He explains that the personal challenge presented by obstinacy is the inability to maintain straightforward, righteous thinking. Inflexibility causes one to maintain his own vision of “right”, even in the presence of clear, incontrovertible proofs that the vision is lacking merit, even self-destructive. He is “stiff necked” in his “inability” to turn to see the value in any other approach. The Jewish people manifested this trait “from the day you left the land of Egypt until your arrival at this place” because for all the times Hashem demonstrated His greatness and rebuked them, they continued to challenge Him time and time again.
Thus, concludes Sforno, their obstinacy, and not their sins, was the reason for their potential destruction. One who simply sins – no matter how great the sin, even the travesty of the Golden Calf – always has the vehicle of teshuva, returning to Hashem’s path, choosing to trust Him and follow His ordinances. But the inflexible iron neck that will not even turn to investigate the options has no hope of teshuva.
We now look back at Tisha B’Av and contemplate where our nation’s – and our own – rigidity have placed us. The prophets warned our ancestors time and time again, to no avail. Both Batei Mikdash (Holy Temples, in Jerusalem) were destroyed and we have weathered 2000 years of exile. Recent events at home and abroad make it clear that we are still in exile, that we have not yet done enough to extricate ourselves from our precarious situation. The decision of our Sages to have us read this parsha now – as we now start to contemplate Elul (the last month of the Jewish calendar) and the Yomim Noraim (the High Holydays), our teshuva season – is deliberate. Our stiff iron neck CAN be turned and we have the ability and the strength to turn it. But we must choose to turn it and look.
Have a good Shabbos!
Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Pinchas Avruch and Project Genesis, Inc.
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