Nothing But The Truth
By Rabbi Elly Broch
“And you should know that not because of your righteousness does G-d, your L-rd, give you this good land to possess it, for you are a stiff necked people”. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 9:6)
“For it is a stiff necked people, and you shall forgive our iniquity and error, and make us your heritage”. (Shemos/Exodus 34:9)
One of the criticisms persistently leveled against our ancestors was that they were stiff necked. What does it mean to be stiff necked? Moreover, if this is a criticism, why in the book of Shemos does Moshe appear to use it as a means to secure forgiveness for the nation?
Rashi (1) explains that the term stiff necked implies that the nation would turn the back of their necks toward those who attempt to rebuke them and refuse to listen. Sforno (2) further provides the etiology for this characteristic. It is caused by one attempting to follow his own mind and heart even though he has been instructed logically and convincingly that his ideas are incorrect. His stiff neck is manifest in his inability to “move his head” and listen to those attempting to guide and help him. Thus, in Shemos, Sforno understands that Moshe was pleading with G-d that although the nation was stiff necked and prone to commit infractions, nevertheless the nation wanted the Creator of the World to continue to dwell in their midst. Despite their stiff-neckedness He should forgive them.
Rabbi Avigdor Miller (3) explains that Moshe requested that the nation should be forgiven specifically because they were a stiff necked people. Moshe was suggesting that this trait could be directed and harnessed for unswerving loyalty to the Divine. Indeed, this is one of our permanent and conspicuous characteristics bequeathed to us from our forefathers. One little family, in a world of great nations that served idols and practiced magic, needed an enormous stubbornness of loyalty and conviction in order to resist and repudiate the prevailing influence of the world in which they lived. They were a stiff necked people that were skeptical of miracles and difficult to convince, but once they were convinced by observation of the world and open demonstrations of the presence and benevolence of a Creator, they were committed and unyielding in their loyalty. Even Bilaam, a wicked Midianite prophet who actually attempted to destroy the Jewish nation, ultimately praised them, “He kneeled, he lay down like a lion, and like a lioness; who can rouse him up?” (Bamidbar/Numbers 24:10). We are a people that fight with lion-like ferociousness when oppressors attempt to repress or interfere with our practice of our precious heritage.
This stubbornness is a trait that, like many others, has destructive potential, but if channeled and used appropriately can be invaluable. Like our forefathers, we must thoroughly investigate our heritage, making Judaism integral to our beings and our identity, while maintaining a healthy skepticism of the myriad attractive yet false ideologies that prevail. We cannot simply assimilate the false philosophies that, although unsubstantiated, have engulfed our generation. We must utilize our stiff-neckedness to uncover the truth and live loyally by it.
Have a Good Shabbos!
(1) 1040-1105; Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki; commentator par excellence, whose commentary is considered basic to the understanding of the text
(2) 1470-1550; classic Biblical commentary of Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno of Rome and Bologna, Italy
(3) 1908-2001; a prolific author and popular speaker who specialized in mussar (introspective Jewish self-improvement) and Jewish history, Rabbi Miller commanded a worldwide following through his books and tapes: of the tens of thousands of Torah lectures he delivered, more than 2,000 were preserved on cassettes
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