After several sections in the Torah dealing with intense details about the laws dealing with the Mishkan, the majority of this week’s Torah portion brings a new flavor to the Jewish narrative. This week’s Parsha is mostly dedicated to the sin of the golden calf and Moses’ ensuing “dialogue” with G-d about forgiveness.
I would like to key in on an observation usually left unnoticed. There is a phrase used to describe the Jewish people in this section of the Torah that is repeated several times in a small amount of time. The Jews are called a “stiff-necked people”. Colloquially, they are stubborn.
The phrase is used by G-d as His leading cause for anger against the Jews. In the 32nd and 33rd chapter of Exodus, G-d uses this phrase with an obvious negative connotation, even threatening to destroy the Jews with this character trait as the primary cause. G-d tells Moses: “I will not go up in your midst since you are a stiff necked people, lest I destroy you on the way.”
However, later on the in this same section of the Torah, Moses uses this term in the exact opposite light. Moses uses this term as a reason for G-d to forgive the people. A moment ago G-d was using stubbornness as a call to destruction; now Moses is flipping this term to mean the exact opposite, a reason for complete forgiveness! “And Moses hastened, bowed his head to the ground and prostrated himself, and said: “If I have now found favor in Your eyes, O Lord, let the Lord go now in our midst because they are a stiff necked people, and You shall forgive our iniquity and our sin and thus secure us as Your possession.”
How can we possible reconcile this explicit contradiction? Now the medieval commentators seemed to have all taken a similar approach. Rashi and the Ibn Ezra, two of the most famous commentators on the Torah, both explain how in the second verse we quoted, the word because¨ really means even though. This way the claim made by Moshe is that G-d should forgive the Jews despite the fact that they are stiff-necked etc.
The Ramban explains how it can even mean because, but he explains that G-d should forgive them because they are so filled with sin that only He can forgive them himself, and an angel is not adequate. (See the Ramban to 34:9 for further explanation).
However, I would like to a suggest a alternative, yet simpler, answer to this problem. I would like to suggest that perhaps the simplest reading is the correct one. The quality of stubbornness is paradoxically the best and worst traits simultaneously. Stubbornness, when used incorrectly, can literally be a reason for G-d to destroy the Jewish nation. However, when used correctly, stubbornness can also be the token to the Jewish nation’s survival.
The Jewish people have one of the craziest histories of an people that have ever lived, and ever will live. They have been persecuted, exiled, enslaved, redeemed, attacked, etc. I am talking about generation upon generation of anti-Semitism in hundreds of different forms ranging from Haman and the Purim story to the fight against terrorism that is happening at this very moment. There is one thing that has kept the Jewish nation around, whilst all of its persecutors have ceased to exist. This one thing is stubbornness.
Moses is making a brilliant argument to G-d. He is saying as follows: Although now it may seem that stubbornness is causing the Jewish nation to betray You – and it therefore deserves to be punished – keep in mind that that the very same trait of stubbornness will be the key to Jewish survival for the rest of their future, which is what we call Jewish history.
This is an eternal lesson that is extraordinarily valuable for all of us on an everyday level. While we should not be stubborn in our ways, and should be able to bend with the times to allow for flexibility and modern values to be encompassed in our religion, we must not be willing to give up our heritage. We must be stubborn. We must be stiff-necked, unwilling to look down in despair, yet unwilling to look up in haughtiness. This is the paradox of the stiff-necked people. Personally, I prefer the word balance in place of paradox.
– Jonathan Levine