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.
Kol HaKollel is a publication of the Milwaukee Kollel Center for Jewish
Studies 5007 West Keefe Avenue; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; 414-447-7999